Teen Can Sue School for Off-Campus Assault

      (CN) — A teen who was sexually assaulted can sue her school district after being lured off campus by a student who was a registered sex offender, a narrowly divided Washington Supreme Court ruled.
     According to the court’s summary of the case, N.L. was 14 years old when she ran track for the Bethel Junior High School track team, which shared the track with the high school team in 2007. She met 18-year-old Nicholas Clark at practice.
     However, nobody at the track knew Clark was a registered sex offender who had previously assaulted another girl who was the same age as N.L.
     Clark told N.L. that he was 16 years old, and they exchanged text messages.
     Clark and N.L. skipped track practice the next day, and N.L. thought they were going to Burger King for lunch.
     After driving past the restaurant, Clark said he had forgotten something at his house. There, he assaulted N.L.
     After being charged with third-degree rape, Clark pleaded guilty to second-degree assault.
     The sheriff’s department had informed the high school principal of Clark’s status. However, the principal did not form a safety plan or pass this information on to teachers and staff members.
     N.L. sued the Spanaway-based Bethel School District for negligence in 2012, arguing that it failed to protect her from a registered sex offender.
     The school district countered that the attack took place off campus and that N.L.’s “decision to skip track practice and leave campus with Clark were ‘independent acts’ that ‘broke the chain of causation.”‘
     The trial court agreed and dismissed the case, but the Washington Court of Appeals reversed the decision.
     The appeals court ruled that a question still existed over whether the school district had breached its duty of care to N.L.
     The district appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of N.L. in a 5-4 decision Sept. 1.
     Writing for the majority, Justice Steven C. Gonzalez stated that a victim does not have to be in the custody of the school in order for a duty of care to exist.
     Gonzalez also stated that N.L.’s decision to skip practice and leave campus did not extinguish that duty.
     “Students have been skipping class since at least the days of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer,” he stated in his 21-page opinion. “We cannot say as a matter of law that it is unforeseeable that students will leave campus together.”
     Gonzalez also noted that the district’s failure to react to Clark’s status as a sex offender could be the legal cause of N.L.’s injury.
     “Sexual assault by a registered sex offender is foreseeable, as is the fact that a much younger student can be convinced to leave campus by an older one,” he wrote.
     The state’s highest court remanded the case for trial.
     Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen disagreed with the majority.
     “Given Clark’s history of sexual assault, had he assaulted N.L. while she was in school custody, the school district would most certainly have owed N.L. a duty to protect her,” she wrote in her 14-page dissent.
     “But a school district’s specific duty is to protect the children in its custody from harm; it is not to protect children in their homes or in the home of another student from harm,” Madsen added. “To hold otherwise would be to expand a school district’s liability beyond reason.”
     The Bethel School board president, Warren Smith, did not respond to an email request for comment.

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