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VideoLearn more about immunity.

A student tells his teacher that two classmates have threatened to beat him up. After school one day on a neighborhood street away from school property, the two classmates do exactly that. The student sues the teacher in state district court for failing to enforce appropriate discipline techniques to prevent the attack.

On another campus, a student engages in a romantic and sexual relationship with a teacher. The student later sues the teacher for federal civil rights violations.

One of these lawsuits was dismissed early in the process, but the other one was not, and the teacher eventually had to pay damages to the student. One of the teachers had immunity from liability; the other did not.

Immunity from liability does not mean that employees cannot be sued. It does mean that if the immunity applies to the particular case, the lawsuit can quickly be dismissed, without the employee having to argue the facts at trial. Many school employees have a limited immunity from liability for both state and federal claims. Violations of state law are generally involved when students suffer injuries from accidents on campus; federal law is usually involved when the student claims that one of his rights has been violated, such as the right to be free from sexual harassment.

Most professional employees of a school district have a qualified good faith immunity from liability for federal civil rights violations. This immunity generally protects school employees who perform discretionary acts from liability for civil damages, as long as their conduct does not violate an established statutory or constitutional right of which a reasonable person should have known. A discretionary act is one where there is no hard and fast rule as to what course of conduct should be taken (such as a school policy). "Discretion" would be eliminated if there was a rule as to the course of conduct to follow. There can be debate as to whether a particular right was "clearly established" as illustrated by the recent "bong hits for Jesus" case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition to the qualified immunity from federal claims, a state statute exists that grants a different type of qualified immunity to certain school employees from state law claims. Covered by this statute are superintendents, principals, teachers, supervisors, social workers, counselors, nurses, teachers' aides, education students participating in a field experience or internship, school bus drivers certified by the Department of Public Safety, and any other person whose position requires certification and the exercise of discretion. This statute protects employees who perform acts involving the use of discretion and judgment from personal liability in state law claims, except for those acts involving the operation, use or maintenance of a motor vehicle, or the use of excessive force or negligence in disciplining students.

The teacher whose student told her he had been threatened by two other students successfully used the qualified immunity defense for the alleged state law violations. The violation did not fit either the motor vehicle or student discipline exceptions, so she could not be held liable for the student's damages.

The other teacher was not able to invoke qualified immunity for the federal violations alleged against him, as the court determined that the student's right to be free from physical and sexual abuse at school was a well-established federal right of which a reasonable teacher should have known.

The legal information provided on this website is for general purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for individual legal advice or the provision of legal services. Accessing this information does not create an attorney-client relationship. Individual legal situations vary greatly and readers should consult directly with an attorney. Eligible ATPE members should contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department using our online system, MLSIS.