Immunity protects North Carolina school leaders accused of ignoring abuse

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A special education teacher in Statesville, North Carolina, repeatedly pushed an autistic first-grade student into a trash can, telling him that if he ‘acted like trash,’ he would be treated ‘like trash,’ according to a federal trial; she pushed him to the ground and covered his nose and mouth. The abuse was reported to superiors, according to the lawsuit, but nothing was done, and the following year she forced the child to stand all day and poured grease on her head.

Robin Johnson continued to teach and abuse students until an outside therapist made a report to police, the lawsuit in federal court said. Johnson pleaded guilty to assault; the boy’s mother later sued school administrators, saying her son was still suffering psychologically from the experience.

On Tuesday, the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that these officials were shielded from liability because there were no substantiated allegations that they had acted maliciously, corruptly or outside of their duties. official.

“The mere allegation that such disheartening things happened at their school does not show that school officials intended let them happen,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. While the malice “has a certain intuitive appeal here given the troubling facts alleged,” he wrote, the plaintiff did not actually make that claim or present any evidence in his complaint.

The legal principle of “qualified immunity” that protects police officers from civil suits has drawn widespread anger in recent years, but the doctrine has survived in state legislatures and the US Supreme Court. Less publicized is the immunity enjoyed by other government actors involved in the case filed in 2020 against leaders of the Iredell-Statesville school district in North Carolina.

North Carolina’s law is ‘better than most states’ because only state officials, not regular state employees, have immunity, said Anya Bidwell, who leads the Immunity Project and accountability at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm. But, she said, “it’s a perfect example of state immunity and how difficult it is to overcome.”

Federal immunity is even broader; Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a Border Patrol agent could not be prosecuted for retaliation or excessive use of force after he was accused of pushing an innkeeper to the ground.

The plaintiffs in the North Carolina case unsuccessfully argued that malice can be inferred by “knowledge of the abuse, lack of investigation, and reckless disregard for the abuse “.

An employee reported the alleged abuse to the manager, who told district employees; no school employee notified the police, social services, the state superintendent, or the child’s mother, and the student remained in Johnson’s class for second grade.

Because his ability to communicate is limited, the boy was only able to tell his mother about some of the abuse when it had been going on for two years, according to the lawsuit. When her mother confronted school officials, she said, they stood up for Johnson. It wasn’t until he was in third grade, at another school, that a therapist learned of the abuse and reported Johnson to the police, according to the court filing.

Even after pleading guilty to assaulting a disabled person, she was listed online as a teacher in the district, according to the plaintiffs.

There is a duty to investigate and report student abuse under North Carolina law, and a lower court agreed with plaintiffs that immunity does not apply because there was no no discretionary power.

But the appeals court said the decision on how to handle that requirement is discretionary, and that even if it isn’t, it’s unclear whether Carolina’s immunity law North excludes mandatory bonds.

“Public officials can be negligent; officials can even be recklessly indifferent,” said Sarah Saint, representing council members, during oral arguments in March. “That’s what public immunity in North Carolina is for.”

Johnson did not appeal the district court’s finding that the lawsuits against her could proceed, and claims that the council violated federal law protecting persons with disabilities survive. But the ability to collect damages that would help pay the child’s therapy bills is now limited.

“So what’s the cure when you’re going to have counseling for a long time, probably for life, because of what happened – because of what was knowingly allowed to happen to you?” his attorney, Stacey Gahagan, asked in an interview.

Judge Diana Motz, in a concurring opinion, suggested the district court dismiss the claims without prejudice so the family could file a new lawsuit alleging malice. Gahagan said she hoped she could. Lawyers for school officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Motz noted that formal immunity, particularly for police officers, has “come in for heavy criticism,” including from Supreme Court justices. But she said it was up to state lawmakers to respond: “North Carolina has not yet chosen to reconsider its doctrine of public official immunity. Unless and until that day arrives, we may only apply immunity as required by law.

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