A December 14 2016 appeal looked at whether a trial court’s dismissal of claims against some of many defendants in a child abuse case was proper.
B.F. was a 16 year-old student in the Hazlet school district (district) in 2009 with an Independent Educational Plan (IEP), which was designed to address his special needs. The plan called for his placement in The Rugby School at Woodfield, and obligated the district to transport him to and from that school. One of the defendants, R. Helfrich & Son’s Bus Company (Bus), was hired by the district to do this. At the school, another defendant – B.S. – was hired as a teacher’s aide and counselor.
In May, B.F. started a several week sexual relationship with B.S. that included “inappropriate conversations and text messages.” One of the bus company’s drivers, J.R. learned about the relationship and told her supervisors, who in turn notified the District. B.S. was subsequently arrested and prosecuted. The student then claimed that the sexual relationship caused him extreme anxiety, depression, and behavioral changes that led to psychiatric hospitalization.
In June 2012, he filed a lawsuit against the district, B.S., the Board of Ed., the school, and the bus company. The lawsuit papers were revised twice, with claims involving assault and battery, negligence and age and gender discrimination under the New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Several defendants asked the trial court to dismiss the case. A judge ultimately “concluded [the student] failed to plead any facts demonstrating that the bus company violated the LAD. He also decided that it was not acting in loco parentis (as a legal substitute for B.F’s parents) while transporting [him].” The Board of Education was also dismissed from the case.
In B.F.’s appeal, he said that the trial judge was wrong in deciding that the bus company was not acting in loco parentis, because its employees qualify as ‘school personnel’ under New Jersey law. He also said that the judge shouldn’t have dismissed because the record “contained sufficient evidence of the bus company’s negligence, because its drivers never received proper training and failed to report the sexual abuse for more than two weeks.”
The Appellate judges noted that the bus company employee J.R. started working in October 2008, and only received training necessary to operate the bus and get her commercial driver’s license.
On May 28, 2009, she saw the student having a conversation with B.S. and heard her tell him that she would text him. J.R. then overheard B.F’s conversation with a fellow student that was “essentially bragging about his relationship.” A few days later, she noticed a hickey on his neck and heard him say that B.S. gave it to him the night before at her house.
The next day, J.R. spoke directly to Glenn Helfrich, owner of the bus company, who said he didn’t know what to do. J.R. never received any policies or procedures or had specific training about how she should deal with incidents of violence/abuse against children.
The Appeals Court said that the trial “judge should have allowed the student’s claim for common law negligence against Helfrich.” It also decided that:
Under the federal statute, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), transportation to and from school is a “related service.” Moreover, a bus company (public or private) is required to make sure that its employees are properly trained and at a minimum includes student management and discipline. Under the law, any cog in the wheel of a student’s education is responsible to immediately report any suspect child abuse. (This includes any employee of the bus company, the district, the board of education, teachers, aids, or anyone else involved). Failure to do this is evidence of negligence. Any evidence of negligence would mean that summary judgment is not appropriate.
The bus company failed to train employees regarding these obligations. J.R. was aware of the sexual abuse for several days prior to reporting it. Then, the bus company failed to be immediate in its reporting to the school. So the negligence claim should not have been dismissed.
Concerning the claims against the School Board that were dismissed, the Appeals Court felt that the claim of negligence was never properly addressed. B.F. claimed that the Board was responsible to make sure that the bus company personnel were properly trained to transport special needs children. But that Court felt that the Board did not have a legal duty to make sure that the bus company trained its employees that way. This case is a perfect example as to why it is absolutely essential that companies/institutions involved in the education of children (especially special needs students) carefully and immediately document and report any instance of abuse or inappropriate behavior. Evan Xavier Bakhet is a J.D. Candidate at Rutgers School of Law-Newark with a scheduled graduation date in 2017. He collaborated with me on this blog.