School Liability in a Student Bullying Case: It’s Fact-Driven

It’s a new day, and [expectantly] the news brings us yet another bullying story. Brandon Myers was a 12-year-old student in the Blue Springs (Missouri) School District. He was born with a cleft palate, and for that he “faced constant bullying from his classmates. … [O]n one occasion at recess, several students threatened to ‘fill up the hole’ in Brandon’s face before shoving him to the ground. They then reportedly pushed grass and dirt in his nose and mouth.”[1] Brandon’s parents taught him to be the bigger person and ignore the teasing and bullying. They also “encouraged their son to tell a teacher about the bullying. When he did… he was [rebuked and] told to stop being a ‘tattletale.’”[2]

Between the “constant tormenting” and teachers who simply would not listen, Brandon was pushed to one conclusion: suicide by hanging was his only recourse. Brandon’s parents just reached a settlement with the school district’s insurance company to the tune of $500,000. The agreement also included “making two administrators be retrained in bullying awareness” and the implementation of a bullying awareness day.[3]

Connecticut law is presently unsettled with respect to whether school districts are liable for bullying in schools. Each case is typically very fact-driven: “whether a parent can prevail on [a negligence claim] is dependent on the unique facts and circumstances surrounding their child’s case.”[4] It also depends on whether the action on part of the school was governmental or ministerial.

Governmental acts are performed to benefit the public and involve discretion and supervision. For public policy reasons, the Connecticut legislature has elected to grant qualified immunity to school personnel who perform acts of this nature. Therefore, liability will not attach in a negligence action unless one of three exceptions applies: 1) the act involves malice or intent to injure; 2) there is a statutory cause of action against the municipal employee; or 3) the municipal employee’s failure to act directed at an identifiable person subject to an imminent harm.[5]

On the other hand, ministerial acts do not allow the exercise of discretion or judgment. They are “usually secondary in nature and executed according to established policy, rule or practice,”[6] such as inspecting and keeping hallways clean or adult supervision at recess.[7] The failure to adequately perform a ministerial duty may result in liability of the school district. However, Connecticut courts are in disagreement as to whether or not “a school’s failure to take action against bullying when it knew or should have known about the misconduct constitutes a misperformance of a ministerial function.”[8]

The extent to which a school district details its anti-bullying policy appears to play a key role in the court’s decision, and “[a] parent will likely have a better chance to prevail on a negligence claim under a ‘ministerial action’ theory if the school fails to discharge a responsibility that was spelled out in the plan in such exquisite detail that it eliminated or marginalized a school employee’s judgment or discretion.”[9]

If you are the parent of a child who has been bullied or harassed at school, it is imperative that you consult with an experienced and knowledgeable school law practitioner. The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport. If you have any questions regarding school liability or any other education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] “Blue Springs School District’s insurance company settled bullying lawsuit for $500,000,” by Melissa Yaeger. October 15, 2012: http://www.kshb.com/dpp/news/local_news/investigations/blue-springs-school-districts-insurance-company-settled-bullying-lawsuit-for-500000?hpt=ju_bn5

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] “Advocating on Your Child’s Behalf: A Parent’s Guide to Connecticut School Law,” by Joseph C. Maya, Esq. pp. 104-05.

[5] Esposito v. Town of Bethany, No. CV065002923, 2010 WL 2196910, at *4 (Conn. Super. Ct. May 3, 2010).

[6] Id. at *3.

[7] See Footnote 4 at pp.105.

[8] Compare Dornfried v. Berlin Board of Education, No. CV064011497S, 2008 WL 5220639, at *1 (Conn. Super. Ct. Sept. 26, 2008) with Esposito, supra, at *8.

[9] See Footnote 4 at pp.106.