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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently dismissed a case against two school districts in which a student and her parents alleged that one of the school districts failed to protect her from bullying by classmates and that teachers and coaches at the school were complicit in the bullying. In D.S. v. East Porter County School Corp., 2015 WL 5005080, the court held that the Due Process Clause does not impose a duty on school districts to protect students from harm by other students, and that D.S. failed to establish that the teachers and coaches instigated, created, or increased any bullying D.S. alleged she experienced in school.

D.S. alleged she was bullied over a number of years by classmates and teammates, and that that her teachers and coaches at the middle school also bullied her or were complicit in the bullying by others. In February 2011, D.S. did not return to school following an alleged incident after basketball practice in which her teammates switched her uniform for a larger size and called her “fat.” Following this practice, D.S.’s mother yelled at a number of the alleged bullies, D.S.’s father confronted the principal, and D.S.’s father and grandfather also confronted some of the alleged bullies. After D.S.’s parents failed to meet with the Superintendent the next day, the school district banned D.S.’s parents from school property for one year. D.S.’s parents tried to enroll D.S. in the neighboring school district. That school district had open enrollment, but informed D.S.’s parents that D.S. would not be permitted to enroll because enrollment was closing.

D.S.’s parents filed a lawsuit against both school districts pursuant to Section 1983 (42 U.S.C. § 1983), alleging due process violations, municipal liability, and various state law claims, including intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, and false light invasion of privacy. The parents also filed an equal protection claim against the school district that denied D.S. enrollment. The federal district court ruled in favor of both school districts, granting their motions for summary judgment. D.S.’s parents appealed the decision to the 7th Circuit.

Generally, the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment prevents the state (i.e., a public school district) from infringing on an individual’s life, liberty, or property, but it does not impose a duty upon the state to protect individuals from harm by private actors (i.e., the students who were the alleged bullies). There are two recognized exceptions: (1) the state must protect individuals with whom it has a “special relationship,” such a custodial relationship; and (2) the “state-created danger exception,” which applies when a state actor’s conduct increases the risk of harm to an individual. In this case, D.S. relied on the state-created danger exception. D.S. alleged that school officials created the risk that she would be bullied by other students or rendered her more vulnerable to the risk of being bullied.

The federal district court held that D.S. failed to offer sufficient evidence that school officials instigated, created, or increased the bullying D.S. alleged she experienced at school, and that even if they did, their actions “do not rise to the requisite level of egregiousness.” The 7th Circuit affirmed the federal district court’s ruling. The federal district court also dismissed D.S.’s equal protection claim against the other school district that denied her enrollment because she failed to identify any similarly situated students who were treated differently than she. The appellate court affirmed that ruling, as well.

For questions about bullying and defending claims of bullying against school districts and school officials, please contact Vanessa Clohessy or Jennifer Mueller.