It is an unfortunate truth that children can be harmed while at school, or when participating in school related activities. A child may be injured while on a school field trip, or on the school bus on their way home. Other concerning topics include school failure to prevent bullying, and failure to comply with applicable disability laws. As a parent, it is vital to understand what rights you and your child have, so that when necessary, you can defend your child’s interest and rights in being educated in a safe school environment. 

Additionally, if you are employed by a school district, you may need to sue that district for claims related to your employment. Unfortunately, there are few circumstances in which you actually have the right to sue a school or school district.

When it comes to the rights you have as a parent against a public school or school district, administrative law, civil legal systems, and criminal legal systems are all involved. Administrative law is the body of law that governs the activities of governmental agencies, which includes public schools. 

Civil and criminal legal systems involve a judge presiding over a case, and tend to serve legal areas such as crime and personal liability. Administrative law consists of a tribunal, such as a board or commission, that makes decisions related to the regulation of the agency it represents. This is done utilizing an administrative court.

Typically, you will need to file a complaint against the responsible parties and exhaust all administrative avenues before moving forward with a civil suit. Each state’s requirements for filing such a complaint vary. Some states also require a notice of claims, or a statement identifying your legal cause of action such as discrimination, failure to return personal property, etc.

What Parties can be Sued at a School or School District?

Determining the appropriate person to sue will rely heavily on the particular facts of your case. Almost any responsible person or entity may be sued for the child’s injuries, as long as there is an actual legal claim to be made. Principals, teachers, coaches, school bus drivers, and guidance counselors are just a few examples of those who have been sued relating to some action taken that resulted in a child’s injuries.

In addition to individuals, the school itself may be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees. Vicarious liability laws allow you to hold a person accountable for the actions of another person. There is a separate and involved process when claiming vicarious liability. 

It is important to remember that, as a governmental entity, public schools may be able to assert limited governmental immunity against your claim. Immunity varies by state, and government entities (including public schools) are offered immunity in order to protect them from claims involving situations that may occur due to the nature of the entity’s work. 

An example would be an arrested perpetrator being unable to sue the police for assault and battery. Thus, the facts of the case are very important in determining whether a school or school district will be afforded immunity to your lawsuit. Facts establishing serious negligence, or willful misconduct, can be sufficient to defeat immunity claims.

When must You File Your Initial Complaint, and What are Some Common Complaints?

As previously mentioned, you will generally need to exhaust all administrative complaint processes with the school and school district, before elevating your complaint to a court of law. One reason for this process is that many of the policies that apply to bullying, discipline, safety, and other issues, are developed at the school district level. The deadlines for filing an administrative complaint vary according to school districts; you will want to determine your district’s deadline as soon as possible, after the incident. 

Typically, an investigation will follow once your complaint has been made. Many administrative complaints can be positively resolved. If they cannot, you are able to pursue a formal lawsuit against the responsible parties.

Suits against schools are generally related to claims against the school for:

  • Failing to Comply with Disability Laws: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that qualified children with a disability are entitled to free and appropriate education. Public schools are required to evaluate if a child meets this qualification. Children who meet this requirement are entitled to receive specialized services and instructions from the school. Failure to comply with the IDEA is grounds for a complaint;
  • Improperly Applying Discipline: Appropriate school discipline typically includes refusing to allow the child to participate in school sanctioned activities such as sports or clubs, detention, in school suspension, out of school suspension, and expelling the student. If you feel that your child has been improperly or unfairly disciplined, you could file a complaint against the school and seek to reverse or erase the disciplinary action; or
  • Failing to Protect a Child Against Bullying from Another Student: Bullying includes conduct occurring both on school grounds, and cyberbullying. Bullying is also defined by individual schools, but generally includes intentional behavior that is meant to threaten, frighten, or otherwise hurt another student. If a complaint has been made about your child being bullied by another student, and the school fails to take satisfactory action, you may be able to formally sue all parties responsible for bullying your child or allowing the bullying to continue.

Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Public School and School District Legal Issues?

Suing a school or school district can be difficult, given the limited circumstances in which it is possible. Further, dealing with the issue of governmental immunity is also especially complicated. Thus, it may be in your best interests to consult with an experienced government attorney

A knowledgeable and qualified government attorney can help you identify any and all potential claims you may have, as well as assess any immunity issues, and represent you in court, if necessary.