Missouri courts hold schools accountable to students

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L.G. v. Columbia Public Schools, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83348, Holds That Students Have Constitutionally Protected Rights During the School Day

On May 12, 2020, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey, declined to dismiss a wrongful detention lawsuit against a school resource officer and an assistant school principal, thus allowing the lawsuit to proceed. This suit stems from an incident in the Columbia Public Schools (CPS) in Columbia, MO.

On May 22, 2019, two officers from the Columbia Police Department (CPD) arrived at Rock Bridge High School to question L.G., a sixteen-year old student, about an alleged sexual assault that occurred outside of school hours at the home of a CPS student.  L.G. was in the middle of final exams when she was summoned to the office for questioning.

The CPD officers did not have a warrant or other court order to question L.G., nor were there circumstances that would require L.G. to be questioned in the middle of the school day.

Columbia Public Schools has a written policy that states, “When law enforcement officials find it necessary to question students during the school day or during periods of extracurricular activities, the school principal or designee will be present,” and  “the principal ordinarily will make reasonable efforts to notify the student’s parents/guardian.”  Despite this policy, CPD officers were allowed to question the 16-year old student without an administrator or parent present and as a result, L.G. missed her final exams and reported lingering emotional distress.

In her suit, L.G. asserted a constitutional claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  L.G. alleged that her Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted seizure were violated when Edwards, the school resource officer, led her to a room and allowed her to be detained by police for questioning.  A second claim was made against Baker, the assistant principal, for negligent infliction of emotional distress.  L.G. alleged that both Edwards and Baker were part of a pattern of rights abuse in CPS schools, that permitted law enforcement officers to seize students at school without a warrant, probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or exigent circumstances and to interrogate such students outside the presence of a parent or adult guardian.

In their defense, attorneys for Edwards and Baker argued that the claims against them should be dismissed because of the official immunity doctrine and the Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Protection Act of 2001 which protect public officials and teachers from negligence claims.

The official immunity doctrine shields public officials from negligence when they are performing acts in the course of their official legal duties.  However, if the public official violates a departmentally mandated duty, including departmental policies, they can still be held responsible for negligent acts.  Here, CPS Board Policy clearly required specific action in a specific situation.  Therefore, when Baker and Edwards permitted the interrogation of L.G. in the absence of a principal, designee, or parent, they potentially failed to adhere to departmental policy and were no longer entitled to official immunity.

The Coverdell Teacher Protection Act of 2001, provides that “no teacher in a school shall be liable for harm caused by an act or omission of the teacher on behalf of the school.”  20 U.S.C. § 6736.  The purpose of the Coverdell Act is “to provide teachers, principals, and other school professionals the tools they need to undertake reasonable actions to maintain order, discipline, and an appropriate educational environment.”  20 U.S.C. § 6732.  The Teacher Protection Act does not apply if the alleged conduct of the teacher violates Federal, state, and local laws (including rules and regulations).  Since L.G.’s negligence claims were tied to alleged federal constitutional violations, Judge Laughrey decided the Teacher Protection Act did not protect Baker and Edwards. Therefore, the claim is allowed to proceed.

L.G. v. Columbia Public Schools is an important case as it seeks to protect student rights in public schools and potentially hold school officials accountable for rights violations.  This case is ongoing as an appeal has since been filed in the 8th Circuit.

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