Court Rules PA Schools Have No Obligation to Protect Students

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.