Learn 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
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
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.