Every new school year, students buy new clothes, organize their school supplies, and get ready for… hostile work environments? That’s right. If you aren’t careful, your little tykes (or teens) could be the source of legal liability in the classroom. Now proving student-on-teacher hostile work environment claims is quite difficult, and of course, kids are expected to be kids. But if you’re a principal concerned about some misbehaving kids or a school board dealing with complaints from teachers about this issue, here are some helpful pointers:
Can Teachers Really Win This Kind Of Lawsuit?
Sure, but not as a matter of law. These cases are rare but have seen a slow uptick in the last two decades. They will typically show up when the school is moving for summary judgment on a teacher’s hostile work environment claim. The best case scenario for the teacher at that stage of the case is to get that claim to trial. To date, there is no known record of a teacher actually winning such a case on summary judgment.
What Makes This Kind Of Case Different?
Unlike with traditional Title VII cases, where an employee sues his or her employer for conduct that the employer is directly responsible for, students aren’t employees nor are they acting on behalf of the school. Therefore, the school isn’t vicariously liable for their actions. Courts that have allowed such lawsuits to proceed generally do so on the theory that school administrators are in a greater position of authority to “manage” their students and have a responsibility to teachers to exercise that authority. This rationale grew out of Davis v. Monroe Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629, 119 S.Ct. 1661, 143 L.Ed.2d 839 (1999), a Supreme Court case dealing with a school district’s responsibility for student-on-student harassment.
As this area of the law develops, the cases appear to be a bit unpredictable. For example, in Eyo v. Orangeburg Consol. Sch. Dist. 5, 2015 BL 85946, 8 (D.S.C. Mar. 27, 2015), a 71-year-old black female teacher who was born in Nigeria could go forward on her hostile work environment claim against the school district after her students physically assaulted her and repeatedly threw things at her. But in Deen v. Shenandoah Cty. Pub. Sch., 2017 BL 240713, 5 (W.D. Va. July 12, 2017), a black teacher with a Muslim-sounding name couldn’t go forward on his hostile work environment claim even after alleging that a student at one school called him a “n****r” and threatened to “kick his a**” and that students at another school taunted him with racially charged questions like whether he liked fried chicken. The court considered those incidents to be isolated and concluded that, even taken together, they didn’t establish a hostile work environment.
Is There A Test?
Yes (and no school pun intended), a New York federal court has taken a crack at establishing the elements of a hostile work environment claim based on student-on-teacher harassment. The court explained that first, a plaintiff must show “that a hostile environment existed and second that the school board either provided no reasonable avenue of complaint or knew of the harassment and failed to take appropriate remedial action.” Berger-Rothberg v. City of New York, 803 F.Supp.2d 155, 165, 2011 BL 75962, 8 (E.D.N.Y. 2011). Second, the plaintiff must point to evidence so “that a jury could reasonably find that school officials failed to take appropriate remedial action.”
This test might produce divergent results, but it sure would be a good idea to keep that test handy if your students are a little rowdy coming back from summer break.
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