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ONLINE DISCUSSION

The decision in Ferraro v. Board of Education of the City of New York (1961) indicated that courts will hold school personnel liable if a student attacks and injures another student and the teacher should have known that such an attack or aggressive behavior was possible and, therefore, could have prevented the injury. A student with a long history of behavior problems assaulted Josette Ferraro in a junior high school classroom. The student had assaulted peers on a number of occasions and was constantly aggressive toward students as well as teachers. On the day of the assault, a substitute teacher was in charge of the class. She was not informed of the student’s tendency to misbehave and attack other students. Josette Ferraro, who was injured when attacked, sued the school. The court found the school negligent because they had not informed the substitute of the student’s aggressive behavior toward others. The court reasoned that had she known, the substitute teacher could have taken actions to prevent the assault.

A similar case was heard by a federal district court in Pennsylvania. In Cohen v. School District (1992), a special education student with learning disabilities, behavior problems, and known violent tendencies was mainstreamed without adequate supervision. Without provocation, the student attacked and injured a peer in his classroom. The parents of the injured student sued the school maintaining that the injured student’s rights had been violated. The court held that placing a student with behavior problems in the general education setting is not unconstitutional per se. That is, it is not a violation of law to place a potentially violent student in a general education classroom. The court stated such a placement, however, may result in school officials being held liable if the officials knew that a student with disabilities was violent, and they placed the student in the general education classroom without adequate supervision.

In Grooms v. Marlboro County School District (1992), school officials permitted a 15-year-old boy with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems to leave his classroom unescorted if he thought his behavior would be disruptive. Additionally, the boy was supposed to go to the school janitor for supervision. Specifically the boy was told that when he going to misbehave he could "skip" class and go to the school janitor’s office. He was supposed to stay there until he was ready to "go back to class and behave." In one instance, the boy walked out of his classroom and got into a fight in the hall. The janitor did not intervene and the boy suffered severe head injuries. The parents brought suit against the school district alleging negligent supervision. The court ruled that the case had merit and could go forth. The court reasoned that the school’s policy of allowing the student, "whose judgment was impaired by the disability," to simply leave the classroom unescorted and report to a person who "did not have the level of expertise necessary" to deal with the student may have constituted gross negligence.

In McMahan v. Crutchfield (1997), a school district paid to settle a lawsuit involving a special education student who assaulted a five-year-old girl. Allan Crutchfield, who had mild to moderate mental disabilities and had a history of behavioral problems, was participating in a job-training program when the assault occurred. He had a history of assaultive behavior, and a mental health evaluation had stressed that he be under constant supervision. His job-training program involved work in a college cafeteria. One morning a college student brought her five-year-old daughter into the cafeteria. When the girl went to the bathroom, Crutchfield, who was unsupervised, followed her in, forced her head into a toilet, and began to strangle her. A college student hearing screaming ran into the bathroom and chased Crutchfield away. The young girl was unconscious and injured, but she eventually recovered. Crutchfield was later found incompetent to stand trial and committed to a state psychiatric hospital. The girl’s mother sued the school district. Rather than going to court, school officials admitted their liability and paid the girl’s mother $400,000.

These cases are instructive in that they illustrate when school officials and personnel may be held liable for student injury and misconduct. They are also similar in that the actions of school personnel were clearly negligent. In each case, student injury could have been prevented had the school personnel performed their duties in a reaonable manner.

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