(CN) – A Washington special education teacher cannot be sued for civil rights violations because two developmentally disabled teenagers had sex during unsupervised visits to the school bathroom, the 9th Circuit ruled.
Madhuri Patel filed a federal complaint in Seattle on behalf of her daughter, A.H., who is classified as “mildly mentally retarded.” Patel claimed that Kentridge High School teacher Francine Wilhelm violated A.H.’s “due process right to bodily integrity” by letting her go to the bathroom alone.
A year before the bathroom incidents in spring 2007, school administrators had instituted a “no-contact” order to keep other students from interacting with A.H., then a freshman, because other students had convinced A.H. to steal from her mother’s purse.
Patel worried that A.H. would often attempt to fit in with her peers by allowing herself to be easily manipulated or mistreated. Under her Individualized Education Plan, school staff was supposed to escort A.H. to a self-contained classroom taught by Francine Wilhelm and any classes outside that room.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to create such plans tailored to the unique needs of students with disabilities.
By the following year, however, Wilhelm let the then-16-year-old sophomore go on her own to the bathroom immediately across from the classroom, hoping that it would foster independent development.
Eventually, A.H. admitted to her mother that she had had sex on several occasions in the school bathroom with a new student named Matt, who is also developmentally disabled.
A counselor determined the sex might be “consensual” despite the students’ disabilities, but Patel claimed her daughter had been “repeatedly raped” in a lawsuit against several people and entities, including the school and Wilhelm.
U.S. District Judge John Coughenour granted summary judgment for Wilhelm on the federal claims and declined to adjudicate the state law claims. The 9th Circuit affirmed Monday.
“The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause generally does not confer any affirmative right to governmental aid, even where such aid may be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests,” Judge Richard Tallman wrote for the court.
The three-judge panel in Seattle found that A.H. did not qualify for the special-relationship exception used to confer due-process rights on the incarcerated. Because A.H. was in her parents’ care and was free to change schools, she had greater freedom than would indicate a “custodial” relationship with the state.
The ruling aligns with findings from the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th Circuits.
“Our sister circuits uniformly hold that requiring school attendance does not sufficiently restrict a student’s liberty… to transform the school’s in loco parentis duties into a constitutional obligation,” Tallman wrote.
Wilhelm was also not “deliberately indifferent” to A.H.’s needs, precluding exception for state-created danger.
“At worst, Wilhelm committed a lapse in judgment by allowing A.H. to quickly use the next-door bathroom on her own,” Tallman wrote. “Whether these circumstances rose to the level of negligence is a question that will be resolved by a jury in Washington state court. But on this record, no rational factfinder could conclude that Wilhelm acted with deliberate indifference to A.H.’s safety and well-being. Anything less ‘is not enough’ to constitutionalize a state tort.”
“While we certainly have sympathy for Patel’s position as a concerned and caring parent, we decline to depart from this persuasive authority,” the 24-page decision states.