Supreme Court of Ohio Holds Educators Immune from Failure to Prevent Bullying

Gallagher Sharp LLP By Gallagher Sharp LLP

On November 10, 2020, the Supreme Court of Ohio found that a group of Toledo educators did not act recklessly in failing to respond to bullying reports and ultimately prevent a kindergartner from stabbing a classmate with a pencil. The decision in A.J.R. v. Lute, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-5168, is a big win for Ohio educators; however the finding relies heavily on the specific case facts instead of a bright-line rule. Consequently, attorneys and claims professionals can expect future arguments that the decision is not controlling based on the particular facts of each case.

The case arose from a lawsuit filed by the child’s parents, who alleged that the kindergarten teacher, assistant principal, and principal were reckless in failing to address bullying of the child by a classmate. The family alleged the child was subject to repeated name-calling, teasing, social exclusion, and physical bullying by the same classmate, and that they repeatedly notified the educators. This culminated in the classmate stabbing the child in the face with a pencil. The family claimed the two children should not have even been sitting at the same table because of the past issues.

The educators claimed that they took steps to address the reports, including talking to the class and checking in on the child and the classmate. The teacher testified that she kept an eye on the class and if she had observed teasing she would have intervened.

After discovery, the educators filed a motion for summary judgment under Ohio’s political subdivision immunity statute, specifically R.C. 2744.03(A)(6), arguing that they did not act with malicious purpose, in bad faith, or in a wanton or reckless manner because they had no reason to believe the classmate posed a risk of physical harm. The trial court granted summary judgment, and the Sixth District Court of Appeals in Toledo reversed. The lead opinion found that there was evidence of ongoing bullying such as pushing, and that the parents had previously expressed concern that the situation was escalating.

The Supreme Court of Ohio noted that the dispositive issue was whether the educators acted recklessly, ultimately finding that reasonable minds could only come to the conclusion that they did not. The Court first looked at whether the “family presented any evidence of a known risk that [the classmate] might cause physical harm to” the child. The Court found that the educators were generally aware of verbal bullying, but the only evidence that even arguably suggested the risk of physical violence was an incident of pushing in line. However, this was “insufficient to establish that there was a known risk that [the classmate] might cause physical harm to [the child]. There is no evidence in the record indicating that the alleged pushing was severe enough to have the potential to result in physical harm.”

The decision went on to find that even if the educators should have been aware of the risk of physical harm, there was no evidence that the educators acted with conscious disregard or indifference, which is required for a finding of recklessness.

The Court noted that the educators had taken steps to address the reports of bullying. The Court declined to address several other arguments, including the claim that the teachers owed the child a heightened duty of care, that the family’s constitutional rights were violated, and that the educators violated other statutes.

Read the full opinion by clicking here.