Ambrosio E. Rodriguez

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Understanding School Liability in Teacher Sex Crime Cases

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“Our top priorities are the safety and welfare of our students.  The school has developed and is instituting a series of best-in-class policies, practices and programs to deal with such incidents effectively”.   According to an article published in the Beverly Press this is the reaction from the Marlborough School after learning of sexual misconduct by former teacher Joseph Koetters.

The ex-Marlborough School teacher, Joseph Thomas Koetters, was arrested Wednesday, February 4, 2015 on charges of two counts each of oral copulation and penetration with a foreign object involving someone under 18.  The charges follow an alleged yearlong sexual relationship initiated by Koetters with a 16-year-old student while teaching at Marlborough School.  The victim came forward to police after sexual harassment allegations against Koetters surfaced in an essay by another former student that was published in an online magazine last year.

The felony sex charges Koetters faces are punishable under California Penal Code, subjecting him to possible imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year or in the state prison for two to four years.

In addition to the felony charges Koetters faces, attorney for the victim plans to file a civil suit against Koetters and the school.  His client’s story is the recent subject of a Vanity Fair article.

Can the school be held liable for the conduct of its teacher?
California law imposes upon school districts a duty to protect and supervise.  Schools must carefully supervise students while on school premises during the school day and the school may be held liable for injuries caused by the failure to exercise such care.

Vicarious Liability
The concept of vicarious liability arises in an employee/employer situation.  This legal concept can hold an employer, i.e. a school, liable for acts of its employee, i.e. a teacher, if the acts are committed within the scope of the employment.  However, not all conduct of teachers can subject a school to liability.  Schools are not liable for a teacher’s malicious or wrongful conduct if the teacher substantially deviates from his/her employment duties for personal reasons.

The California Supreme Court has held that a school cannot be vicariously liable for a teacher’s sexual misbehavior with a student at the teacher’s apartment while participating in an officially sanctioned extracurricular activity.  The California Supreme Court’s reasoning was that the connection between the authority conferred on teachers to carry out their instructional duties and the abuse of that authority to indulge in personal, sexual misconduct is simply too attenuated to deem a sexual assault as falling within the range of risks allocable to a teacher’s employer.

Direct Liability
While a school may not be vicariously liable for the conduct of its teachers, it may be directly liable.  A school may be held liable for its own negligence in hiring, supervising or retaining a teacher if the school knows or should know that the teacher poses a foreseeable risk of harm to its students.

The California Court of Appeals has held that a student can proceed with an action for negligent hiring and supervision, and that if the individual employees responsible for hiring and/or supervising teachers knew or should have known of prior sexual misconduct (thus the teacher posed a reasonably foreseeable risk of harm to students), the school employees owed a duty to protect students from such harm.

In the Marlborough School incident, a team was commissioned by the school board investigated the allegations against Koetter and concluded that there existed a “pattern of misconduct” by the teacher and “mistakes of judgment” by top school officials.  The school conducted an internal review after the online posting and released a summary in November saying that the school’s chief administrator hadn’t fulfilled “several crucial management and oversight responsibilities” by failing to address student complaints in the past.  In addition, the school’s chief administrator announced that she was stepping down.

As the criminal case unfolds it will be interesting to see what liability is imposed on the school for the conduct of Koetters.  This case provides awareness on legal issues that you or someone you know may be facing.  For more information on sex crimes and how we can help, contact The Rodriguez Law Group.

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