Colleges Have a Duty to Warn or Protect Students from Foreseeable Violence

April 2018
Number 14

Colleges have a legal duty, under certain circumstances, to protect their students from or warn them about foreseeable violence in the classroom or during curricular activities, the California Supreme Court has ruled.

In The Regents of the University of California, et al., v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, the Court considered whether colleges owe a duty of care to their students to protect them from or warn them about foreseeable violence. This question is critical to determining whether a college acted in a negligent manner when it failed to warn or protect students from foreseeable violence.

Negligence claims require the existence of an underlying duty of care owed the injured party. Where there is no duty of care on the college’s part, a college cannot be held liable for negligence.

Background

A student who displayed increasingly hallucinatory, erratic, and threatening behavior stabbed a fellow student during a chemistry lab. Over the course of that year, the university, which was aware of the student’s psychological issues, had moved him to a different dormitory and then a single room before expelling him from student housing. The university also provided counseling services, urged the student to submit to voluntary hospitalization, concluded he did not meet the criteria for an involuntary hold, and ordered him to return to counseling services. The members of the university’s consultation and response team monitored the student’s behavior and became increasingly concerned when he identified particular students as threats. The day before the stabbing the team scheduled a meeting with the student, but he failed to attend. The university did not otherwise protect or warn students regarding the potential threats.

The Court concluded that colleges have a duty to their students to warn or protect them from foreseeable harm, which arises from the special relationship that exists between the college and its students. The Court opined the college environment is unique. A college provides educational services and community, often at a point in students’ lives when they are learning to navigate the world as adults and are vulnerable and dependent on the college for a safe environment. Colleges have superior control over the environment and also, the ability to protect students by imposing rules, disciplining students, and employing resident advisers, mental health counselors, and campus police. There is also a limited community to whom the duty is owed, namely students and not the public at large. These characteristics all fit within the paradigm of a special relationship between the parties which establishes a duty to warn or protect from foreseeable harm.

A college’s duty to warn and protect students is limited, however, and extends only to activities where the college has some control. The Supreme Court concluded it is reasonable for students to expect that a college will provide some measure of safety in the classroom, and more broadly, in curricular activities.

The Court emphasized that the existence of a duty of care is not equivalent to liability, and that not all violence on campuses can be prevented. Colleges do have a duty to act with reasonable care, however, when aware of a foreseeable threat of violence in a curricular setting.

The Court did not provide any guidance regarding what a college must do to meet this duty of care. Having settled that colleges generally owe a limited duty of care to their students, the case was remanded to the Court of Appeal to determine whether the university had breached its duty of care in this case or was otherwise immune from liability. Thus, whether the university’s response failed to meet its duty to warn or protect, and guidance on what the university should have done and when, remains to be determined by the Court of Appeal.

Takeaways

If community college employees acting within the scope of their employment become aware of student behavioral issues that could rise to the level of foreseeable harm, there is a duty of care which may result in liability if the community college fails to warn or protect students. Community colleges should ensure there are communication channels in place to alert employees responsible for assessing and responding to threatening behavior, and should also review their behavioral intervention protocols.

Though Regents is specific to the college environment, a court could adopt a similar viewpoint toward a school district and its minor students. For more specific analysis in the school district context, contact legal counsel.

If you have any questions about this case or about community colleges’ or school districts’ duty of care to students in general, please contact the authors of this Client News brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

Written by:

Michelle C. Cannon

Partner

Carrie M. Rasmussen

Senior Counsel

©2017 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

Advertisements

Comments are closed.