Peoria Circuit Court Applies Tort Immunity Act and Dismisses Bullying Case Against School District

In April, the Peoria County Circuit Court for the Tenth Judicial Circuit dismissed a bullying lawsuit against Peoria Public School District No. 150. In Chappell v. Board of Education of Peoria Public Schools, successfully defended by Jason Manning and Frazier Satterly, the parents of a Peoria High School student alleged that the District failed to follow its own anti-bullying policy, resulting in physical and emotional injuries to the student following a physical altercation with her peers.

In their amended complaint, Plaintiffs claimed that in early 2017, their daughter, J.C., was bullied by several female students, and that she met with building administrators to discuss the bullying and abuse. The District created a plan of action for J.C., instituting certain social emotional supports for her. Notably, J.C. would not, or could not, identify her alleged bullies at that time. According to J.C.’s parents, the District failed to notify them about either the bullying or the meeting with building administrators.

Plaintiffs further alleged that despite the meeting, the bullying continued and J.C.’s attempts to speak with building administrators went unanswered. The bullying culminated in a physical altercation, wherein J.C. alleged she was attacked by a group of female students in the common area of the high school.

The lawsuit claimed that the District acted willfully and wantonly in failing to take action to stop the bullying, in failing to investigate the report of bullying, and in failing to notify the student’s parents. At their core, Plaintiffs’ claims were premised on the theory that the District’s anti-bullying policy required administrators to respond to J.C.’s claims in a certain manner, and that their failure to do so was negligent. In other words, the District’s response to claims of bullying was necessarily ministerial—the District had to perform all enumerated tasks in the Board Policy without exercising their discretion as educators.

The District filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that sections 2-201 and 2-109 of the Tort Immunity Act barred Plaintiffs’ claims. The circuit court agreed, concluding that the District’s response to claims of bullying involved both the determination of policy and the exercise of discretion, and were therefore immunized. Relying on two seminal cases, Malinski v.  Grayslake Comm. High School Dist. 127, 2014 IL App (2d) 130685, and Hascall v. Williams, 2013 IL App (4th) 121131, the court noted that Illinois courts have repeatedly held that the way a school official handles or addresses bullying falls within the definition of a discretionary act and is therefore subject to immunity. In dismissing the case, the court also found it of particular import that J.C. could not identify her alleged bullies—the District’s ability to investigate the instance of bullying in accordance with its policy was hamstrung by the student’s unwillingness to cooperate.

While this ruling is not binding authority, it does reaffirm that school staff and administrators have a wide amount of latitude in responding to instances of bullying and student discipline matters.

Please contact Jason Manning or Frazier Satterly with any bullying policy inquiries and for information on how this ruling may impact your district.

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