School District Liability: Special Needs Students

Jennifer C. v. Los Angeles Unified School District, (2nd District, December 8, 2008) 168 Cal. App. 4th 1320, 86 Cal.Rptr.3d 274, 2008 WL 5122998

A 14-year-old special needs student who was sexually assaulted on school grounds during a lunch break filed an action against the school district, alleging negligent supervision and maintenance of a dangerous condition of public property. The plaintiff contended that while “mainstreamed” and allowed to interact with the general education student body, she was assaulted by another special needs student who took her to a hidden alcove underneath a stairway.

The school district moved for summary judgment, arguing that as a matter of law the plaintiff would have to demonstrate that the same type of conduct or victimization had previously occurred on the campus before there could be a finding of foreseeability. The trial court granted summary judgment, but the court of appeal reversed, holding that the absence of prior similar incidents was not a bar to a finding of liability:

“When an injury occurs despite a defendant’s efforts to provide security or supervision, it is relatively easy to claim that, ipso facto, the security or supervision provided was ineffective. Without more, such claims fail.” (Thompson v. Sacramento Unified School Dist. (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 1332, 1370.) Here, there is “more.” Given the unique vulnerability of “special needs” students, it is foreseeable that they may be victimized by other students. Where school officials allow a hidden area to be maintained on campus, it is foreseeable that other students may use the hiding place to take advantage of a “special needs” student. School officials were on constructive notice that this hidden alcove was a potential place for victimization, i.e. a “problem area.” . . .

The types of victimization of a “special needs” child are only limited by the imagination of the “victimizer.” This could include teasing, harassment, assault, battery, sexual assault, taking lunch money, or robbery. In this context, it is the “special needs” student’s vulnerability to all of the above that gives rise to the duty to adequately supervise and to eliminate hidden areas where victimization can occur.
. . .
A “special needs” child at public schools needs help and protection. We believe school officials, in theory, would agree with this unremarkable statement. But, in our view, they may need an incentive to drive compliance with the duty to provide adequate supervision. Our ruling today provides that incentive. We hold that maintenance of a hiding place where a “special needs” child can be victimized satisfies the foreseeability factor of the duty analysis even in the absence of prior similar occurrences.”

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