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Another Case in Which a School District Is Found Not Liable for Student Bullying

Students who have been bullied in school have long had difficulty holding school districts responsible for the acts of students. A decision this week by a federal appeals court extends that streak, and in stark terms.

A Massachusetts student identified in court papers as R.M. was a 12-year-old middle school student who faced alleged bullying by students at his school in 2011. Court papers say that one day in October of that year, R.M. was repeatedly kicked and punched by students who belonged to a gang called "the Kool-Aid Club." 

There is some evidence that R.M. had agreed to the beating as a form of initiation to the club. But after R.M. discussed the situation with the principal, that led to more bullying from the Kool-Aid Club, because he had gotten them into trouble. (And R.M. himself was disciplined for "delaying the investigation.")

R.M.'s suit alleges acts by fellow students of "table-topping"—in which one bully pushes the victim backward over another student who is on all fours behind the victim—as well as "pantsing," in which the victim's pants are quickly pulled down from behind.

The court papers suggest that administrators at Lexington Middle School in Lexington, Mass., at times seemed to take seriously the complaints of R.M. and his mother, but that their responses to the bullying were ineffective. But the suit also alleges school officials asked Lexington police officers to go to R.M.'s house to enforce the compulsory-attendance law when R.M. was refusing to go to school because of panic attacks over being bullied, the court papers say.

R.M. briefly attended a private school, but later re-enrolled at Lexington Middle School. His mother sued the Lexington school district and school administrators, arguing, among other claims, that the actions of the school system and its officials fell with the "state-created danger" theory of liability. That theory has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts for situations in which acts of the government create or worsen danger to an individual.

The suit contends the district allegedly "turned a blind eye" to the bullying of R.M. and took affirmative steps to disregard his complaints.

A federal district court dismissed the family's lawsuit, and in a May 23 decision in Morgan v. Town of Lexington, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, unanimously ruled for the defendants as well.

The appeals court held that the suit's claims that district actions (or inactions) violated R.M.'s 14th Amendment due-process rights did not have much of a chance given 1st Circuit precedent.

In a 2005 case, the panel said, the 1st Circuit court rejected any government liability in the case of a 15-year-old girl who had witnessed a murder and was told she would be provided police protection if she testified in the case. 

"She agreed; she was not protected; and she was murdered," the appeals court said. "We explained that it is not enough to allege something shocked the conscience. The plaintiff had to show that governmental conduct caused the deprivation of the right. We said: The purpose of the Due Process Clause is to protect the people from the state, not to ensure that the state protects them from each other."

R.M.'s mother "has not alleged the pungent facts that would be required to show that any behavior by school officials was so extreme as to shock the conscience," the appeals court said.

The court also rejected the family's state-created-danger claim.

"An alleged failure of the school to be effective in stopping bullying by other students is not action by the state to create or increase the danger," the court said. "These routine acts of school discipline, truancy enforcement, and administrator-parent conferences are not the vehicle for a substantive-due-process constitutional claim."

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