Postsecondary Schools Have a Duty of Care to Protect Students from Foreseeable Harm That Occurs During Curricular Activities
On March 22, 2018, in the case of The Regents of California et al. v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Case No. S230568, the California Supreme Court held that postsecondary schools have a duty to protect students from foreseeable violent acts that occur while students are engaged in curricular activities. In so holding, the Court overturned the decision of the lower court and remanded the case to the court of appeal to determine the particular standard of care required, whether the university breached its duty, and whether the university officials were entitled to statutory immunity from the suit. While this was a public university case, the Court specifically noted that it used the terms “university” and “college” “interchangeably to refer to all schools that provide postsecondary education to enrolled students,” thus making the Court’s holding, and any subsequent determinations by the court of appeal, critical to universities and community colleges alike.
On October 8, 2009, a UCLA student, Damon Thompson, stabbed his classmate, Katherine Rosen, during a chemistry lab class while the class was being taught and supervised by a UCLA professor. Rosen survived the attack and sued the UCLA and the individual employees who had previously interacted with Thompson, alleging they were aware Thompson experienced hallucinations wherein he believed other students were criticizing him and would potentially harm him and exhibited “dangerous propensities.” Rosen claimed that UCLA had a “special relationship” with her as its student, which imposed a duty on the school to warn or protect her from the attack.
A College’s Duty to Protect Students from Foreseeable Harm
Generally, a duty to warn or protect may exist if the defendant has a “special relationship” with the potential victim that gives the victim a right to expect protection. (Zelig v. County of Los Angeles (2002) 27 Cal.4th 1112, 1129.) Examples of these types of relationships include the relationship between innkeepers and their guests and the relationship between common carriers (buses, airplanes, etc.) and their passengers. Additionally, the California Supreme Court has previously held that secondary educational institutions have a special relationship with their students “arising from the mandatory character of school attendance and the comprehensive control over students exercised by school personnel [and] this special relationship gives secondary school personnel the duty to use reasonable measures to protect students from foreseeable injury at the hands of third parties acting negligently or intentionally.” (William S. Hart Union High School Dist. (2012) 53 Cal.4th 861, 869.) However, until now, the California Supreme Court had not opined as to whether colleges and universities have a legal duty toward their students to warn or protect them from foreseeable violence.
In this decision, the Supreme Court analyzed the college environment and the college–student relationship, and described colleges as “a discrete community for students,” where students “are dependent on their college communities to provide structure, guidance, and a safe learning environment.” Because of the unique features of the college environment, and the fact that colleges have superior control over the ability to protect students, the Court held that postsecondary schools also have a special relationship with their students and thus owe a duty to protect those students from reasonably foreseeable violence.
However, the Court limited the parameters of this relationship to existing only “while [students] are engaged in activities that are part of the school’s curriculum or closely related to its delivery of educational services.” Consequently, the Court stated that colleges only have a duty of care to warn or protect students from foreseeable harm regarding risks that arise within the scope of the school–student relationship. The Court further limited the parameters regarding the special relationship by stating: “this relationship is bounded by the student’s enrollment status. Colleges do not have a special relationship with the world at large, but only with their enrolled students. The population is limited, as is the relationship’s duration.” Lastly, the Court opined that colleges are in a special relationship with their enrolled students only in the context of school-sponsored activities over which the college has some measure of control.
Practical Implications for Postsecondary Schools
While this decision expands postsecondary schools’ responsibilities to protect students, the Court also limited the extent to which schools can be liable for student action. Under the new standard, colleges may only be held accountable for incidents that occur in circumstances under which the school exercises a significant degree of control, specifically in classrooms while class is in session or during curricular activities. As noted in the concurring opinion of Justice Chin, the Court’s opinion is sure to create confusion insofar as it extends the duty of care beyond the classroom to those activities that are “curricular” or “closely related to [the] delivery of educational services,” without providing guidance or factors to help determine what types of non-classroom activities would be encompassed within its holding. In addition, the Court clarified that colleges only owe a duty of care to protect their students from foreseeable acts of violence. Therefore, if an independent actor, or a student who exhibited no signs of violence or instability, commits an act of violence, this decision does not bear on the college’s potential liability if those violent acts were not reasonably foreseeable.
The Court emphasized that a duty of care is not the equivalent of liability, suggesting that colleges are not now required to prevent any and all acts of violence against students on their campuses. To the contrary, colleges are required only to act reasonably when they are aware of a foreseeable threat of violence to their students at a curricular activity. Whether UCLA’s actions were reasonable under the facts of this particular case will be determined by the court of appeal on remand, which in turn will shine some light on the obligations of postsecondary institutions to respond to potentially threatening behavior.
While this decision leaves much to be desired in terms of specific guidance for institutions of higher education, at a minimum it confirms that students who exhibit signs of mental instability should be monitored within the college or university’s legal authority. If a student specifically indicates an intent to harm other students, the college should take measures to reasonably protect other students and staff by taking steps to prevent or to warn others of potential risk. As indicated by the Court, “what constitutes reasonable care will vary with the circumstances of each case [e.g. depending on the seriousness of the threat, whether it was directed at a specific individual or generalized in nature, etc.].” It is also important to note that there may be additional considerations involved, such as student privacy and due process rights, particularly where the foreseeable risk of harm is attributed to a student with a known or suspected disability. Given the nuances that can arise, it is advisable that colleges consult with legal counsel to develop policies on student safety that strike a balance between these concerns, as well as to determine the appropriate steps for responding to threatening or potentially threatening student behavior.
Practical Implications for K-12 School Districts
This decision specifically addresses postsecondary schools. However, the Supreme Court cites to several cases that involve secondary and elementary schools, including its prior decision in William S. Hart Union High School District, supra, and indicates that it is established California law that a school district has a special relationship with students giving rise to a duty of care. Therefore, while this case does not directly affect K-12 school districts, a forthcoming court of appeal decision could be illustrative of what actions will be considered reasonable by the courts in responding to potential threats of violence.