Court to Reconsider Whether School Had Duty to Protect Student

By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 09, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will re-consider next week whether a public elementary school has a special relationship with its students that creates a constitutional duty to protect their personal security.

During the 2007-2008 school year, Tommy Keyes, an unauthorized stranger, checked plaintiff Jane Doe out of her elementary school at least six times. Doe’s father and grandmother, who brought a lawsuit on her behalf, allege that Keyes “brutally and viciously raped, sodomized and molested” Doe each time before returning her to school. Keyes was convicted of sexual battery in the case, and is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence, reports the Associated Press.

Doe claims that the Covington County School District violated her substantive due process rights by being deliberately indifferent to her safety. According to the lawsuit, the school affirmatively deprived Doe of her liberty to care for herself by surrendering her to Keyes. Doe alleges that school officials never consulted her "Permission to Check Out" form, nor requested identification from Keyes, before letting him take her from the school.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett dismissed the complaint, finding that a student has no constitutional guarantee of protection at school under the circumstances in the case, and that individually-named school officials were entitled to qualified immunity, reports the AP.

While the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Starrett on qualified immunity for school officials, it reinstated the case against the school district.

Doe argued that school's duty to protect stemmed from the compulsory-attendance policy. She says the school had a special relationship with her because it limited her freedom to act on her behalf during school hours. Doe was required to attend school throughout the entire school day, out of the presence of her legal guardian, and without any ability to leave; this exclusive confinement, combined with her very young age, made her wholly dependent on the school for her safety.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that Doe pleaded a facially plausible claim that the school violated her substantive due-process rights by virtue of its special relationship with her, and its deliberate indifference to known threats to her safety, (i.e., relinquishing Doe to her attacker during compulsory school attendance hours.)

The Covington County School District is appealing in an en banc hearing, arguing that a failure to check Keyes' identity did not amount to a constitutional violation. Arguments are scheduled for January 18.

In other Fifth Circuit news, the court will close today a 4 p.m. CST due to traffic and street closures for the BCS National Championship game. If you have non-emergency business with the court, it must be completed before 4 p.m. today. If you need to go to the Fifth Circuit today, give yourself extra time to navigate around the football fans.

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