This research paper deals with the legal liabilities of school administrators, primarily school board superintendents, principals and assistant principals to third parties. The emphasis is on the public schools through grade K-12. Traditionally, school board administrators were largely insulated under state law from liability. Since the 1970s, the liability exposure of school districts, school administrators and teachers has exponentially expanded. Largely due to the effects of various forms of federal intervention in the public schools and the creation and enforcement of private federal causes of action against them, the task of school administration has become highly legally intensive and the relationship between public school officials and students and parents has become much more adversarial. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the pendulum in public education shifted to a concern over educational standards and greater local, including greater parental, control over school decisions. The latter trend has only served to complicate the legal position of school administrators.
Traditional Liability Exposure of School Administrators
Traditionally, courts have been reluctant to interfere with the exercise of discretion by school districts, administrators and teachers, except in cases involving egregious abuses, a lack of good faith or other violations of state law. At one time, public school administrators (but not teachers) were exempt from civil liability to students or others under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. According to Tanner (1972), the general rule was that "school districts and municipalities are not liable for pupil injury" (p. 525). State statutes insulating these bodies and officials from civil liability remain in effect in a number of states, especially in the South and Southwest. This immunity has been revoked or diluted by decisions of state courts in many others. If immunity is applicable, a plaintiff allegedly injured by school action can recover only from individual teachers or other school employees. Where immunity has been abolished, the school board or school district can be held liable for its own negligence or intentional torts, or they can be held vicariously (strictly) liable for the negligence or intentional torts of their employees.
Teachers were regarded to be in loco parentis, to stand in the place of a student's parents. Teachers were liable in negligence actions only for their proven failure to exercise due care, which was the proximate cause of injury. In most cases which imposed liability under state law, very serious failures of supervision were present, such as in the landmark case of Daily v. Los Angeles School District. In that case, a gym instructor allowed 'slap boxing' to go on in his class, which resulted in the death by skull fracture of one of his students (Tanner, 1972, p. 526).
Plaintiffs have rarely succeeded in prevailing in actions aimed at holding schools or teachers liable for sports injuries or in cases involving injuries inflicted on students by teachers or vice-versa. In one 1987 New York case, the court said that, "the school board did not assume an affirmative duty to protect teachers and from students," and, in another the same year, that "a board of education is not an insurer of its students' safety" (Recent Developments," 1988, Winter, p. 329). Attempts by students disappointed with the results of their education to sue schools and teachers for educational malpractice have generally failed (Newman, 1990, p. 110).
Creation of Federal Private Causes of Action
After the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that de facto racial segregation in the public school violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, the federal courts assumed primary responsibility for desegregating the nation's public schools. During the past 40 years, Congress, federal...