Sexual Assault at School
Children sexually assaulted at school, either at the hands of a teacher, professor, staff member or fellow student, may have grounds to file a lawsuit against the school district, its staffers and other third parties.
Rape or molestation of a child in school, at a school-related function or at the hands of a trusted teacher can be shattering to communities, families and individuals. At The Ansara Law Firm, our Fort Lauderdale sex assault attorneys are committed to helping victims and their families obtain accountability.
A civil tort claim is one that seeks financial damage for wrongs that resulted in an injury. Tort claims filed by victims of sexual assault at school have been on the rise. Although victims can take legal action directly against their attacker/ abuser, third-party litigation is more common, and is typically predicated on the legal theory that the school or employee had a responsibility to use reasonable care to protect students against foreseeable sexual assault and failed to do so.
School districts and employees can be held liable for sexual assault that occurs on their watch or by their employees because of the special duty of care that exists between educational institutions and students. The Florida Supreme Court has held that at least through the high school level, public schools owe a general duty of supervision to students in its care. Courts have long recognized common law holding that a school’s negligent failure to carry out this duty is actionable. Parents and students rely on school staffers, teachers and administrators to protect their children during school and school-related activities. When the school fails and a child is harmed, that’s cause for civil litigation.
For instance, leaders in education need to ensure isolated areas on campus are closely monitored or firmly secured. The fact that a school doesn’t have a history of assaults in certain locations doesn’t mean there is no duty to take reasonable precautions to prevent those areas from becoming a crime scene. Schools need to take into account the needs of all students, including those with cognitive and physical disabilities when considering what is “foreseeable” in terms of the potential danger of sexual assault. Schools also must take care in ensuring the staffers they hire to work in close proximity to students don’t have a background of violence or sexual abuse.
Some examples of sex assault claims against school districts include:
- Negligent hiring. The school district hired someone without properly vetting their background, or hired someone in spite of a history of criminal or sexual misconduct.
- Negligent supervision. The school district did not provide adequate supervision of the student at school or a school-related function, making them vulnerable to an attack or abuse.
- Inadequate security. The school’s security measures (i.e., no locks, broken doors, not verifying a person’s identity before allowing someone into the school or pick up a child) were lax and caused injury that was foreseeable.
- Failure to report/ investigate. Schools have a legal responsibility to investigate suspected acts of child abuse or assault and promptly report those suspicions to authorities. This is an affirmative duty, and failure to do is considered a third-degree felony criminal offense, as outlined in Ann. Stat. § 39.205(1)-(4) , subject to a $1 million state fine, as well as a cause for action for civil litigation filed by the victim. This applies not just to elementary, middle and high-schools, but also universities and colleges too.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of causes of action in sexual assault cases against schools, but it does encompass some of the most common.
Victims of sexual assault at school may have grounds to pursue a claim even if a criminal case is not pursued or did not result in conviction. Civil cases such as these are held to a lower burden of proof than criminal cases (proof of liability by a “preponderance of the evidence” as opposed to criminal convictions, which must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”). Additionally, the terms of resolution in a civil case, whether by settlement or verdict, can involve other terms the victim may find essential to closer, such as termination of the abuser’s employment.
We should note that in Florida, children between the ages of 6 and 18 can be held liable or partially at-fault in civil cases – even for sexual assault, as asinine as that sounds. We saw this in Palm Beach County back in 2017, when the school district defended itself in sexual abuse lawsuits by alleging the plaintiffs – ages 6, 9, 14, and a 7-year-old with autism – were partially or fully at fault, and thus the district should not be financially liable for alleged abuse (two allegedly involving fellow classmates, another a teacher and another an adult student). Three of those cases were later settled by the district, while the fourth was dropped. This contributory negligence defense is often ineffective in trials involving plaintiffs who are underage and victims of sexual abuse, but it is important to understand the possibility it could be raised.
If your child suffered sexual abuse or sexual assault at school or by a school teacher or staff member, our dedicated, compassionate team of injury attorneys at The Ansara Law Firm can help you explore your legal options.
Contact The Ansara Law Firm for more information about pursuing a civil claim for damages after sexual assault, abuse or molestation. Call us at (888) ANSARA-8 for a free case review.