Ohio Supreme Court Finds School Officials Immune in Bullying Incident

On November 10, 2020, the Ohio Supreme Court released a decision[1]finding that a teacher and school officials did not act recklessly in failing to prevent alleged bullying and were immune from individual liability on that basis. The alleged bullying culminated in one student, S., puncturing the cheek of another student, A.J.R., with a sharpened pencil while the two students were seated at the same school table.

In the case, A.J.R.’s family claimed that the teacher and the principal were individually liable because they “recklessly” failed to address prior bullying and failed to prevent the pencil incident. The prior bullying included name-calling, teasing, being socially excluded, and an incident in which S. pushed A.J.R. while they were standing in line. The District argued that the employees were immune from individual liability because there was no evidence that they acted recklessly. Rather, the employees investigated these reports of bullying, and they took steps to prevent further bullying by promptly speaking with the students’ class about teasing, frequently checking in with A.J.R. to ask how she was doing, and regularly monitoring her interactions with other students. The trial court agreed with the District, granting summary judgment and finding the employees were immune from liability. However, the appellate court reversed, finding that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the officials had acted recklessly because the alleged bullying escalated to physical abuse.

The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision, finding that the school officials were immune because they did not act recklessly. The Court explained that “reckless” conduct requires more than mere negligence; instead, the actor “must be conscious that his conduct will in all probability result in injury.” In other words, the District’s employees must have consciously disregarded a “known or obvious risk” that S. might cause physical harm to A.J.R. Although there was one prior physical incident – when S. pushed A.J.R.– the Court found that there was no evidence the pushing incident was severe enough to have put the District staff on notice of a risk of physical harm. There also was no evidence that S. caused or created the risk of causing physical harm any other students prior to the pencil incident. Thus, there was no known risk, and the employees could not have been reckless.

The Court further found that even if the alleged bullying had created a known risk of harm, the employees did not consciously disregard that risk. In fact, the employees did the opposite: they paid special attention to A.J.R., addressed the reports of bullying, and communicated with A.J.R. to ensure she was doing well and was not experiencing further bullying.

The decision serves as a useful reminder to districts to take bullying allegations seriously and follow up on them appropriately regardless of the severity of the allegations. School districts which do their due diligence in this regard will be better equipped to defend against claims that their employees are liable for failing to prevent future incidents of bullying.

[i] A.J.R. v. Lute, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-5168.

Samantha Vajskop may be reached at svajskop@pepple-waggoner.com.