Court Rules PA Schools Have No Obligation to Protect Students
Published On June 10, 2013 » By Victoria Martin » Breaking News, Opinion, Pennsylvania
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The United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled on June 5th that school districts have no obligation to protect students from abuse and harassment from their peers. Brittany and Emily Morrow, siblings who attended Blackhawk High School in Beaver County, were subject to racially motivated verbal harassment and physical attacks by another student. When Brittany was assaulted in the lunchroom, she was suspended for retaliating against her attacker, who was then charged in juvenile court with harassment, terroristic threats, and assault. The school readmitted the attacker after a period of expulsion. She continued to verbally and physically attack Brittany upon returning to the school. Emily was also bullied by students at Blackhawk High School. When the Morrow’s parents approached the school board, they were advised to pull their daughters out of the school, which they did in 2008. The Morrow family sued the Blackhawk School District for violation of the fourteenth amendment.

In the ruling, the court claimed that, “Parents in [the victim’s] position should be able to send their children off to school with some level of comfort that those children will be safe from bullies… Nonetheless, the Constitution does not provide judicial remedies for every social ill.” The decision stated that public schools have no special relationship with their students which necessitates that they protect their students from harm brought about by their peers.

This verdict is incredibly troubling for a number of reasons. It conflicts with anti-bullying legislation across the country, many of which state that the school has an obligation to monitor and follow up on incidents of bullying. Additionally, if the school district has no legal responsibility for the actions students take towards one another, how are school suspensions and expulsions for violent behavior to be regulated? Under this ruling, is it possible that a school district could arbitrarily assign disciplinary action against students who exhibit violent behavior, with some students receiving no punishment at all?

There is no word yet on whether or not the Morrow family plans on pursuing the case further. Perhaps with continuing legal action, a more clear answer on school violence will emerge.

The US Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit opinion for Morrow v. Balaski can be downloaded here.

About The Author

Victoria Martin is a senior Public Health major at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. She is originally from Shippensburg, PA in Cumberland County. Victoria aspires to work in LGBT health upon graduation. She can be reached at vmartin@pennsec.org.

6 Responses to Court Rules PA Schools Have No Obligation to Protect Students

  1. What an outrage! The court is way out of line, taking a lazy way out of an easy answer: yes, the schools have a definite obligation to protect the students! This should not even be a question. I hope the parents appeal, as this ruling is completely unsatisfactory.

  2. Donna Kennedy says:

    I am shocked at this decision. Does teenage suicide and students who have been bullied by other students going to the schools on a shooting spree mean nothing in the eyes of the law? I am disgusted by this decision! All students who bully other students should have to suffer for their behavior and the ones effected should be protected from this type of behavior! Sad, very sad. i am so glad my family is not in Pennsylvania!

  3. T Lee T says:

    If this sort of bullying behavior happened in the workplace, the offender would be fired for contributing to a hostile work environment.

  4. Fed Up Mom says:

    School districts and the schools that lay within should not tolerate bullying and should have very strict punishments for these bullies and their parents. The school districts attempt to claim that they hold no liability because they are not the ones that are causing harm to the victims. When a school and their district offices know of the bullying taking place and are not lifting a finger to assist these victims they are actually causing direct harm by not taking action. The school has a duty to protect our children when our children are in their care. They become in full breach of this duty by negligently supervising our youth. When a school district tells you what school your child is “zoned” to attend, when a school accepts your Child’s application to attend their school, they assume something called In Loco Parentis. This means that the school district and the school fully assume the responsibilities and duties that a parent would normally have to monitor, protect, care for, and discipline a child. They accept this duty, and if they negligently “turn the other cheek” while fulfilling such a duty, then yes they should 110% be held financially and legally responsible for all consequences of bullying.

    If a school or their district office fails to enforce their bullying policy or investigate any allegations swiftly it could be considered negligence per se and parents can fully hold them liable for the bullying on their child.

  5. Jeff B says:

    Totally out of line! If the school officials and our courts cannot protect my child, well, then I do. It is not going to be pretty!

  6. Paul F. Wilson says:

    Outrageous, incomprehensible, unacceptable.

    Do the terms “in loco parentis” or “parens patriae” mean nothing to these idiots? Both of those concepts have been common-law foundations governing the relationships among school, students, and teachers, basically since the Romans came up with the words.

    The Supreme Court has been eroding a strict-constructionist reading of students’ right for many years — in “Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier” (1987) they said a school may censor student publications despite the First Amendment, and in “New Jersey v. T. L. O.” (1985) they said that a school should pay some attention to the Fourth Amendment’s unreasonable-searches restrictions (where a parent would not) but students do not have a 100% guarantee of privacy.

    But the big thing about “New Jersey v. T.L.O.” is that it also stated clearly that schools have a duty to provide a safe school environment:

    Against the child’s interest in privacy must be set the substantial interest of teachers and administrators in maintaining discipline in the classroom and on school grounds. Maintaining order in the classroom has never been easy, but in recent years, school disorder has often taken particularly ugly forms: drug use and violent crime in the schools have become major social problems. See generally 1 NIE, U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare, Violent Schools — Safe Schools: The Safe School Study Report to the Congress (1978). Even in schools that have been spared the most severe disciplinary problems, the preservation of order and a proper educational environment requires close supervision of schoolchildren, as well as the enforcement of rules against conduct that would be perfectly permissible if undertaken by an adult. “Events calling for discipline are frequent occurrences and sometimes require immediate, effective action.” Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. at 419 U. S. 580. Accordingly, we have recognized (Page 469 U. S. 340) that maintaining security and order in the schools requires a certain degree of flexibility in school disciplinary procedures, and we have respected the value of preserving the informality of the student-teacher relationship. See id. at 419 U. S. 582-583; Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. at 430 U. S. 680-682.

    Read that part again — “Events calling for discipline are frequent occurrences and sometimes require immediate, effective action” (Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. at 419 U. S. 580).

    The Constitution itself may not necessarily provide judicial remedies for every social ill,” but the Supreme Court certainly did. These people need to go back to law school. This should never have even gone to trial.

    This _should_ have been a no-brainer.

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