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A federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois recently issued a written opinion holding that a plaintiff could pursue a § 1983 civil rights claim on behalf of a 10-year-old student, under the theory of “state-created danger,” against Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) after the student injured herself on the school playground during recess.

In May 2016, T.G., a 10-year-old girl who attends CPS District #299, injured herself after falling from the monkey bars and landing on a seesaw during recess.  After her fall, T.G.’s teacher took her to the principal’s office to be examined, but no school nurse or trained medical staff was on the premises at the time.  Despite this, no one from the school district called 911 to obtain further aid for T.G.

Eventually, T.G.’s teacher called the plaintiff, who arrived at the school 1-2 hours later.  Upon arrival, the plaintiff found T.G. alone in a hallway without any adult supervision, bleeding from the vaginal area through her clothes.  T.G.’s eyes were swollen from crying and she appeared to be in significant pain.  The plaintiff immediately called 911 and an ambulance took T.G. to the hospital.

At the hospital, T.G. received surgery to repair a subclitoral laceration.  Less than a week later, T.G. underwent a second surgery to address her injuries stemming from the fall.  Based on these circumstances, plaintiff brought, among others, a § 1983 civil rights claim under the theory of state-created danger.

Although difficult to prove, a state entity can be liable under § 1983 when it affirmatively puts a person in a position of danger that the person would not otherwise have been in; that is, when a “state–created danger” occurs.  In order to recover damages under § 1983 for state-created danger, an individual must prove, at a minimum, that:

(1) the defendant acted under the color of the law;

(2) the defendant committed an affirmative act (not mere passive observance) of reckless indifference (not mere negligence);

(3) the defendant’s affirmative act created or increased the danger from private violence to an identified individual, thereby subjecting the individual, or causing the individual to be subjected, to the deprivation of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the U.S. Constitution and laws; and

(4) the defendant’s affirmative act was a foreseeable cause of the injuries or damages sustained by the individual.

While the judge dismissed several of the plaintiff’s other claims, she concluded, in viewing all facts in favor of the plaintiff, that the plaintiff plead enough to allege that the student was exposed to a state-created danger.  In support of her decision the judge stated, “[P]lacing [T.G.] in the hallway in her obviously injured condition effectively is what created or increased much of the harm she faced on account of her injury by cutting her off from other sources of possible rescue and limiting her options for helping herself.”

Although the judge acknowledged that the plaintiff still has much to prove, she concluded that there was enough evidence to allege that the student was exposed to a state-created danger, and thereby permit the action to proceed.  Her ruling emphasizes the considerable responsibility that a school district has to protect and safeguard its students.