Collaboration in Civic Spheres

U.S. Ninth Circuit: Kent teacher not responsible for student’s sexual misconduct

by Melissa Steffan July 13th, 2011

SUMMARY: The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has found a Kent School District teacher to be not responsible for one developmentally disabled student’s sexual misconduct during the school day. Madhuri Patel, the mother of a developmentally disabled high school student, identified as A.H., alleged that Francine Wilhelm, a Kentridge High School special education teacher, failed to adequately supervise A.H. during trips to the bathroom, where she had multiple sexual encounters. Patel alleged that Wilhelm deprived A.H. of her right to bodily integrity, a federally protected due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the Court ruled against Patel, stating, “The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause generally does not require government actors to protect individuals from third parties.” The case could still proceed based on negligence claims, in the state’s court system.

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BACKGROUND:

  • According to the Court’s ruling, A.H. is a former Kentridge High School student who is classified as “mildly mentally retarded” and has difficulty determining how to behave in social situations. After a 2006 investigation revealed A.H. was being coerced by three of her peers, the school placed A.H. on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which included enrollment in a self-contained classroom led by Francine Wilhelm. The IEP included a “no contact” order between A.H. and other students, as well as complete adult supervision of A.H. throughout the school day, especially during passing periods, lunch, and bathroom times. In 2007, Wilhelm began to allow A.H. to go to the bathroom unsupervised.
  • According to the court document, Wilhelm said she believed she was allowing A.H. to grow toward independence. Patel filed suit against Wilhelm and the school district in 2007 when Wilhelm interfered with a potential sexual encounter between A.H. and Matt, and both students admitted to having sex in the bathroom at least five times. Patel pressed not only state and tort law claims, but also a federal civil rights claim. A district court dismissed Patel’s federal claim, finding that Wilhelm had not deprived A.H. of her federal rights. Patel appealed the ruling, and her federal claim forms the basis of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision.

KEY LINK: Madhuri Patel v. Kent School District, United States Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit, July 11, 2011

KEY FINDINGS:

  • The United States Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit ruled that Francine Wilhelm, a special education teacher at Kentridge High School, did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment due process rights of A.H., a minor and “mildly mentally retarded” student enrolled in Wilhelm’s classes during 2006 and 2007.
  • In the federal case, Madhuri Patel, A.H.’s mother, alleged that Wilhelm failed to uphold A.H.’s Constitutional due process rights to bodily integrity. According to the ruling, the sole issue at hand for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was to determine whether Wilhelm had deprived the student of these federally protected Fourteenth Amendment rights.
  • The Court of Appeals affirmed the district judge’s ruling, stating that Patel’s federal claim “fails as a matter of law,” because it failed to “show that (1) the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and (2) the conduct deprived the plaintiff of a federal constitutional or statutory right.”
  • As legal precedent for its decision, the Court of Appeals cited Cf. DeShaney v. Winnebago Cnty. Dep’t of Social Services. However, Patel argued that her case could be distinguished from DeShaney on the basis of the school’s “custody” of A.H. during the day. The Court found no such evidence for custody and declined to distinguish the two cases.
  • The DeShaney ruling found that the state is not responsible to protect individuals from third-party actors. Two exceptions to this rule, the “special relationship” exception or the “state-created danger” exception, do not apply to the facts of Patel’s case, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled.
  • The Court found that Wilhelm did not knowingly place A.H. in immediate danger. As a result, Patel’s claim against the teacher failed to bear the burden of proof against her. “At worst, Wilhelm committed a lapse in judgment by allowing A.H. to quickly use the next-door bathroom on her own. Whether these circumstances rose to the level of negligence is a question that will be resolved by a jury in Washington state court,” the Court stated.
  • Although her federal civil rights case has failed, some of Madhuri Patel’s claims against KSD and Wilhelm may still be viable under state law.

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