It is a frightening and unfortunate truth that it is possible for children to be harmed while they are at school or while they are participating in a school related activity. A child may be injured while they are on a school field trip or while they are on the bus on their way home.
Other concerning issues that may arise in school include the school’s failure to prevent bullying and failure to comply with applicable disability laws. As parents, it is vital to understand what rights an individual and their child has so that, if necessary, they may defend their child’s rights to be educated in a safe school environment.
In addition, if an individual is employed by a school district, they may be required to sue that school district for a claim related to their employment. There are generally only a few circumstances in which an individual actually has the right to sue a school or school district.
When it comes to the rights an individual has as a parent against a public school or school district, different areas of law are involved, including:
- Administrative law;
- Civil law; and
- Criminal law.
Administrative laws are the laws that govern the activities of governmental agencies, including public schools. Under administrative laws, most agencies have a board, commission, or other type of tribunal that adjudicates matters. An administrative court is typically composed of experts in the particular field and it only adjudicates matters within the field by applying the agency’s policies and rules.
Both civil and criminal laws are handled in a court and involve a judge presiding over the case or a jury hearing the case. These laws involve legal areas such as personal liability and criminal offenses.
In most cases, an individual will need to file a complaint against the responsible parties as well as exhaust all administrative avenues prior to filing a civil lawsuit. The requirements for filing such complaints vary by state. Certain states also require a notice of claims, which is a statement that identifies an individual’s legal cause of action such as discrimination, or failure to prevent injury.
What Parties can be Sued at a School or School District?
The particular facts of an individual’s case will determine the appropriate individual to sue. Almost any responsible entity or individual may be sued for a child’s injuries, so long as there are grounds for a legal claim. Examples of individuals who have been sued in relation to a child’s injuries include:
- School bus drivers; and
- Guidance counselors.
In addition to an individual, the school itself may be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees. Pursuant to vicarious liability laws, one individual or entity may be held liable for the actions of another individual. There is a separate and more complex process when claiming vicarious liability.
It is important to note that, as a governmental entity, a public school may be able to assert limited governmental immunity against a claim. These immunities vary by state. Government entities, including public schools, are granted immunity in order to protect them from claims that arise from situations that occur due to the nature of the entity’s work.
The facts of each case are important in determining whether or not a school or school district will be granted immunity against a lawsuit. For example, if the facts show serious negligence or willful misconduct, that may be sufficient to defeat an immunity claim.
When Must You File Your Initial Complaint?
As noted above, an individual will usually be required to exhaust all administrative complaint processes with the school and school district prior to filing a lawsuit. One of the main reasons for this process is that many of the policies that apply to discipline, safety, bullying, and other issues are developed at the school district level.
According to school law, the deadlines for filing an administrative complaint vary by school district. Therefore, an individual will need to determine the deadline of their school district as soon as possible after an incident occurs.
In most cases, an investigation will follow once a complaint has been made. A large number of administrative complaints can be positively resolved without filing a lawsuit. If this is not possible, an individual may be required to pursue a formal lawsuit against the responsible parties.
Lawsuits against public schools are generally related to claims against the school for issues such as:
- Failure to comply with disability laws;
- The improper application of discipline; and
- Failing to protect a child against bullying by another student.
Can You Sue Regarding Special Education and Students with Disabilities?
Students who require special education and students with disabilities have certain rights in relation to schools. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides that children who qualify and have a disability are entitled to a free and appropriate education.
Public schools are required to evaluate children to determine if they meet this qualification. Children who do meet the requirements are entitled to receive specialized services and instructions from their school. If the school fails to comply with IDEA, there is grounds for a complaint.
What if There has been a Violation Involving Student Discipline?
Appropriate student discipline usually includes:
- The refusal to permit a child to participate in a school sanctioned activity, which may include sports or clubs;
- In-school suspension;
- Out of school suspension; and
If an individual believes their child has been improperly or unfairly disciplined, they may file a complaint against the school and seek a reversal or erasure of the disciplinary action. Expulsion is a form of discipline that may be used when a student engages in behavior that the school board has determined in inappropriate, such as:
- The use of drugs or alcohol on campus;
- Fighting with another student; and
- Causing severe disruptions to the learning environment.
If an individual believes their child has been given an improper expulsion, they may file a lawsuit against the school and the school district for damages. They may also request an order reversing the action of expulsion and preventing that action from being recorded in the student’s record.
Can I Sue for Bullying and Harassment Issues?
School bullying involves conduct that may occur on school grounds as well as cyberbullying. Bullying may also be defined by each individual school but typically includes behavior that is meant to threaten, frighten, or otherwise injure another student.
If a complaint has been filed regarding a student bullying an individual’s child and the school fails to take satisfactory action, the parents may be able to formally sue any party involved that is responsible for the bullying or for permitting the bullying to continue. Public schools are required to report to the proper authorities any instances of bullying or child abuse. They are also required to provide students with a learning environment that is free from bullying, harassment and other unsafe situations.
Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Public School and School District Legal Issues?
Yes, it is essential to have the assistance of an experienced government attorney for any public school and school district legal issues you may face. It may be difficult to sue a school or school district, given the limited circumstances in which it is possible. In addition, most government entities have governmental immunity.
An attorney can review your case, determine what claims you may have, and represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary. It is important to note that most school districts have attorneys on staff to defend them against any lawsuits filed. Having an attorney on your side is the best way to fight for your children’s rights while in school.