School districts can be held liable for administrators who learn that an employee may be prone to molesting children but fail to take action to protect students, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The unanimous ruling came in a 2007 case of molestation of a 15-year-old boy by the head guidance counselor at a Los Angeles County high school.
The decision overturned trial and appellate court decisions upholding the dismissal of the lawsuit filed by the unidentified student, who was molested over eight months at the Santa Clarita high school.
The William S. Hart Union High School District had argued that administrators should not be held liable for the actions of an employee because they are responsible for the overall school, not individual students.
But the justices said administrators have a duty to protect children.
Administrators knew the counselor, Roselyn Hubbell, had a history of sexual misconduct but still hired her at Golden Valley High School, the court found.
The court also said that administrators are liable if they learn of an employee's sexual misconduct while the person is on the job and fail to take steps to adequately supervise, train or fire the employee.
An attorney for the school district points out that Thursday's decision only allows the lawsuit to go forward, and does not address the truth of its claims.
"We are disappointed with the Court's decision, but this case is at an early, allegations stage," lawyer Steve Harber said in a written statement to The Associated Press. "It is one thing to make allegations; it is another to establish facts. When the true facts come out, they will show that the district appropriately screens its teachers and counselors and that the alleged perpetrator here was found out, arrested and prosecuted because of the district's vigilance."
Harber said the decision creates broader concerns because it means individual administrators are exposed to negligence lawsuits in hiring and supervision, whether or not the allegations can be proven.
The decision came at a time when Los Angeles Unified School District faces dozens of lawsuits stemming from a sexual misconduct case at a south Los Angeles elementary school. A former teacher was charged in January with 23 counts of lewdness for allegedly feeding his semen on cookies and spoons to students over a four-year period.
The lawsuits allege, among other claims, that the principal and other administrators were negligent because they did not take action against Mark Berndt despite complaints that date to the early 90s. Berndt has pleaded not guilty.
"This is a great victory for victims," said Martha Escutia, a lawyer who is representing nearly 20 students at Miramonte Elementary School. "It's a common sense decision."