M. W. v. Panama Buena Vista Union School Dist

In M. W. v. Panama Buena Vista Union School Dist. (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th 508, the school campus opened at 7:00 a.m. and school began at 8:15 a.m. Office staff arrived between 7:00 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Teachers were required to be on duty to supervise at 7:45 a.m.; no direct or scheduled supervision began until 7:45 a.m. Prior to 8:15 a.m., student access to the campus was unrestricted. Parents were never informed there was no specific plan for supervision prior to 7:45 a.m., nor were they asked not to bring their children to school prior to that time. (Id. at pp. 511-512.) The plaintiff, 15 years old and with a third grade mentality, was enrolled in the eighth grade. The plaintiff had unique vulnerabilities and was susceptible to being tricked and emotionally abused. He struggled socially among his peers and complained about being teased. (Panama, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at pp. 512-513.) The school categorized him as mentally retarded, a designation that carried special concerns regarding his safety and well-being. (Ibid.) The plaintiff's mother, a teacher with the defendant district, routinely dropped him off around 7:15 a.m. When she dropped the plaintiff off, many other students were also arriving. The plaintiff's mother did not request school personnel watch out for her son, nor did she receive any notice from the school asking her not to drop off her son early. She believed the plaintiff was supervised prior to the start of school. Both the principal and vice-principal were aware the plaintiff was dropped off at 7:15 a.m. (Panama, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at p. 513.) One morning, after the plaintiff's mother dropped him off sometime before 7:15 a.m., with no adults in sight, a fellow student, Chris J., tricked the plaintiff into entering the boys' restroom. Chris J., also a special education student, sodomized the plaintiff. (Panama, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at p. 514.) Prior to the incident, Chris J., over the course of two school years, received over 30 instances of discipline. Several of the incidents involved violence toward teachers and fellow students. Chris J. and a group of other students emotionally tormented the plaintiff daily, teasing and ridiculing him before school started. The plaintiff complained several times to the vice-principal and to his teachers but was merely told to stay away from Chris J. During the eighth grade, the plaintiff complained to the vice-principal three separate times but was always given the same even after explaining that staying away did not work. (Panama, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at pp. 513-514.) The plaintiff filed suit for personal injuries and damages against the school district, arguing the district was negligent in failing to supervise the school premises. A jury found in the plaintiff's favor and awarded damages. The district appealed. (Panama, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at pp. 515-516.) The appellate court began by determining whether the district owed a duty to protect the plaintiff from a sexual assault by Chris J. The court summarized its task: "The existence of a duty of care of a school district toward a student depends, in part, on whether the particular harm to the student is reasonably foreseeable. Students are not at risk merely because they are at school, and schools, including school restrooms, are not dangerous places per se. Foreseeability is determined in light of all the circumstances and does not require prior identical events or injuries. 'It is not necessary to prove that the very injury which occurred must have been foreseeable by the school authorities . . . . Their negligence is established if a reasonably prudent person would foresee that injuries of the same general type would be likely to happen in the absence of adequate safeguards.' Further, 'the issue of "foreseeability" does not depend upon the foreseeability of a particular third party's act, but instead focuses on whether the allegedly negligent conduct at issue created a foreseeable risk of a particular kind of harm.' Citation." (Panama, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at pp. 518-519.) The appellate court summarized the circumstances surrounding the incident. The school's gates were unlocked 45 minutes prior to scheduled supervision. No adult was charged with the specific responsibility of supervising the students, nor did the district advise parents of the lack of direct supervision. In addition, the district knew the plaintiff, a vulnerable special education student, arrived at 7:15 a.m. The plaintiff complained several times about being tormented by Chris J., who received over 30 instances of discipline during his two years on campus. As the court observed, Chris J. "was clearly a troubled child and the District knew it." (Panama, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at pp. 519-520.) Under these circumstances, the court found it "reasonably foreseeable that, given the lack of direct supervision in the early morning hours, a special education student, such as the minor, was at risk for sexual or other physical assault. The District's superintendent acknowledged that supervision has a special meaning to educators on the issue of safety and entails observing the person being supervised. This simply did not occur at Earl Warren prior to 7:45 a.m. Given the unique vulnerabilities of special education students, the District knew or reasonably should have known that the minor was subject to the risk of an assault, including a sexual assault, from Chris." (Panama, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at p. 520.) The court noted it was not necessary for the district to have foreseen that an act of sodomy could occur, finding no distinction between a physical assault and a sexual assault for purposes of foreseeability. (Panama, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at p. 521.) The court concluded the assault on the plaintiff was not merely reasonably foreseeable, but "virtually inevitable under the circumstances present on this campus." (Ibid.) Under the court's analysis, when a school instructs special education children, it takes on the unique responsibilities associated with these children. The burden on the district to provide adequate supervision was minimal; the district could satisfy its responsibility by merely precluding students from coming onto campus in the early morning hours. (Panama, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at p. 521.) The court noted other campuses had required early arriving students to congregate in a common area supervised by an adult. Therefore, it was not imposing an onerous duty on the district, but only requiring the type of supervision practiced in other schools. The court concluded this was especially important "given the District's knowledge of the unique factual circumstances in this case." (Panama, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at p. 521.)