PA. Federal District Court Judge Rules That Schools Have a Duty to Train Staff In Breaking Up Fights and Defusing Student's Aggression

In March 2011 Judge Richard Caputo (Adam C. v. Scranton School District, 2011 WL 996171 (M.D. PA 2011)), ruled that the Schools knew that fights were not at all uncommon, that “kids were always getting hurt”  that “there were fights every day” and “police were frequently called to the school.”

The court also found that despite the frequency of fights, many of the staff were not trained in behavior management techniques or how to intervene in disputes.

Further the Court found that Plaintiff-student was involved in approximately twenty fights with other children.  That in April 2005 Adam was involved in a series of verbal exchanges with another student who had a history of behavior problems.  The verbal confrontation escalated to threats and ultimately physical blows.  The other child punched Adam, and both students then exchanged blows.

Following the fight, Adam’s mother was called to pick him up.  She noticed that one side of his face was swollen, and she took him to the emergency room.   Adam suffered an aneurism, headaches, eye damage and a decrease in cognitive functioning as a result of this fight.

In a summary judgment order, the Court ruled/found as follows:

  • [T]he environment at Lourdesmont was, in many senses, awful. Fights occurred daily; students perpetrated violence against each other and against teachers, walked out of classes, and damaged school property. With a maximum of three staff members available to respond to fights, and only one being on duty at times, Lourdesmont had a demonstrated, perpetually inadequate system for crisis management. Other shortcomings at Lourdesmont only compounded these problems: NEIU teachers were forbidden from intervening in fights; teachers and therapists alike had little to no training in defusing students’ aggression.
  • Public schools have an obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education to disabled students. 345 C.F.R. 104.33(a) (defining “appropriate education” in part as an education “designed to meet individual educational needs of handicapped persons as adequately as the needs of non-handicapped persons are met”).
  • Private schools have no obligation to provide an appropriate education to disabled children. 34 C.F.R. 104.33 (providing FAPE only required for a “recipient that operates a public educational program”)
  • A public school cannot abdicate its responsibilities to provide appropriate educations to disabled students by warehousing some in an environment utterly unequipped to meet their needs.  Thus Scranton School District (a public school) may be liable for denying Adam his FAPE by inappropriate placement.
  • While a private school has no obligation under FAPE, Title III of the ADA defines an elementary private school or hospital as a place of public accommodation.  Thus a private school can be liable for discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act (RA) and ADA.  No discrimination was found in this instance.
  • Private schools are held to a standard of ordinary negligence.  A negligence action requires that the plaintiffs prove: “(1) a legally recognized duty or obligation owed them; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) a causal connection between the breach of duty and the resulting injury, and (4) actual loss or damage.
  • The legally recognized duty in this instance is that schools have a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances.  While no liability attaches where personnel was competent, acted reasonable or where the injury was not reasonably foreseeable, here Plaintiff showed that the fight was foreseeable as the child that struck Adam was known to have “behavior issues” and suffer from emotional disturbance.  Additionally, this child had been involved in at least one other physical confrontation with another student.
  • The evidence presented by the Plaintiff was sufficient to require the case to go to a jury to determine whether the staff were properly trained and equipped to handle the many physical altercations occurring at school.

Thus Schools have a Duty to Train Staff In Breaking Up Fights and Defusing Student’s Aggression when the school is on notice that there are students at the school with aggression, emotional and behavioral issues.