COURT RULING: TENNESSEE SCHOOLS LIABLE FOR STUDENT-ON-STUDENT ABUSE

In 2013, parents of three children filed a lawsuit against the Robertson County School system. According to The Tennessean, school staff ignored or failed to respond appropriately to several incidents of student-on-student sexual abuse. The lawsuit claimed that not only did the staff demonstrate indifference to what had been happening, but they also engaged in victim-blaming.

Unfortunately, in-school abuse - perpetrated by either fellow students or adult staff members - is an experience many Tennessee students will endure. In a step in the right direction, state courts have ruled that schools can be held liable when they fail to take action.

Case details

The Tennessean notes that over the course of two years, both administrative staff and teachers did not take the appropriate action when they received reports regarding incidents of sexual abuse against students ranging from 5 to 8 years old. While the school did have a plan in place to keep students from a harmful classmate, that protocol was not followed. One of the offenders even had a history with the state's Department of Children's Services. The child was involved in an incident in which he inappropriately touched his female classmates in preschool.

In a civil case that ended in November of last year, a U.S. District Court judge determined that the school system was liable for damages that victims suffered. He noted that the school lied to the parents of the victims about what had taken place. Further, the students who were harmed were forced to apologize and even made to remain with the offender.

How it happens

Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report released a report that noted kindergarten through 12 th grade schools do not have a systemic approach to both reporting and preventing child sexual abuse. The GAO report notes that 9.6 percent of students will experience sexual misconduct by a teacher, coach or other school personnel.

The report cites several reasons that the activity persists, such as the following:

  • Schools do not have adequate access to an employee's background information.
  • Teachers and other staffs do not have the necessary training to recognize the signs of predatory behavior.
  • Some school districts may cover up reported incidents in order to preserve their reputation.

Even if disciplinary action is taken, the report notes that many districts fail to alert the proper authorities to revoke teaching licenses or prevent the offender from getting into new position.

Preventing the problem

The organization Darkness to Light notes that schools should run a criminal background check in addition to the run-of-the-mill screening that school systems often use. Further, school systems should have a policy in place to prevent teachers and students from entering into a one-on-one situation.

Training is also key, as staff should know how to both spot the signs of abuse and know what to do should a student report an incident. Failing to have a plan in place means failing students in Tennessee.

Anyone who has questions about this issue should consult with an attorney.

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