To begin with, let’s consider some possible reasons why an individual, a group or a school employee might want to file a lawsuit against a school district or the responsible individual employed by the school district. Below is a non-exclusive list of reasons one might have for suing:
- Discrimination: Federal law protects against discrimination. This includes discrimination that occurs in public schools. A person may be discriminated against based on their sex, race, national origin and disability, to name a few.
- Excessive and Severe Punishment: Most school systems have policies on the type of punishment allowed. Regardless, excessive punishment is not appropriate.
- Bullying: The school and its employees fail to stop bullying of a student.
- Failure to Supervise: The school district may face a charge of negligence when a student is injured while not being supervised appropriately.
- Sexual Misconduct: Sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination. It includes sexual assault, molestation, or rape by a school district employee of a student. The district may also be held liable for the harassment of one student by another.
- Improper Expulsion: if a student was expelled improperly, and has gone through all administrative remedies, they may be able to sue the school.
- Educational Malpractice: Failure to properly or satisfactorily educate a student can sometimes open up the school to liability.
Most of the causes listed above involved a parent suing the school system on their child’s behalf. Teachers and other employees of a school district may also have cause to sue:
- Improper Discharge of a Teacher: A teacher or other school system employee may sue the school system if they believe they have been improperly terminated from their job. There will be administrative remedies they will have to pursue within the system prior to this. Teachers may have different administrative remedies than other school system employees.
- Essentially, though, there will be a procedure in which the employee disputes their termination and appeals it until it reaches the final authority, which will likely be the Board for the educational district, or, possibly, the Director of the school system.
Now that we have considered some of the reasons one might have for considering suing a school district, we need to consider the actual legal grounds under which this may be done.
While school systems can be sued, the circumstances under which this may be done are limited. In most cases, as we have already touched on, you cannot jump directly to suing the school system, but must complete certain steps first. This may include going through the administrative remedies offered by a school or a school system.
For instance, the school system may have a procedure in which a complaint must be filed, and then appealed through several levels until it reaches the last level with the final authority within the school system.
In addition to the need to pursue administrative remedies with a school district before suing, there are still limited circumstances under which they may be sued. School systems are part of the government, and, like the government, are immune, except in cases of negligence.
Proving negligence requires proving several different elements and can be challenging. It typically requires extreme negligence in order to be proven. A “Notice of Claim” must also be filed with the school system or the right government agency. Rules on how to file the Notice of Claim will vary by state.
In addition to extreme negligence, school districts may be sued under federal law for discrimination. Public school systems, as well as some private schools, take funds from the federal government. Federal laws, including discrimination laws, therefore apply. Discrimination may be based on a number of protected classes or categories.
Below are the federal laws that protect against discrimination, and the categories they seek to protect:
- Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: This law prohibits discrimination against people based on their race, color or national origin (country they are from).
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): This law prohibits discrimination against people who qualify as having a disability under the Act.
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972: Specifically prohibits discrimination based on sex. Some courts have interpreted this to include discrimination based on gender/gender identity. Sexual harassment is also a type of discrimination based on sex.
- Religious Discrimination: Although this is not explicitly listed in the above-mentioned federal laws, students are free to practice their religion. Also, the religious discrimination a student experiences is likely to occur along with discrimination based on national origin, which is actionable.
Individual employees within a school district can be sued. School districts can sometimes be held vicariously liable for their employees who were involved in the behavior leading to the lawsuit. The following are commonly named as defendants in a school lawsuit:
- Principals and vice principals;
- Counselors; and/or
- Individual school employees.
There are likely to be several defendants in these types of cases. For example, when a teacher if guilty of discriminating against a student, it is then reasonable to consider whether their superiors had any knowledge of the employee’s action and should also be held liable.
If you believe your child has been the victim of illegal activity by the school system, or if you are an employee of the system and believe you’ve been the victim of illegal activity, you may want to contact a local government law attorney. They can help you understand the steps you need to go through in order to find a remedy for your injury.