School May Be Liable for Releasing Girl to Abuser

8/15/2011 9:42:00 AM, Tracey Dalzell Walsh
     (CN) - The 5th Circuit revived a lawsuit that claims a school repeatedly released a 9-year-old girl into the custody of a stranger who subjected the child to "horrific sexual abuse."

     The original complaint alleges that during the 2007-08 school year, a 9-year-old known only as Jane Doe in court documents was checked out of school at least six times by Tommy Keyes, an unauthorized stranger who signed the child out as her father and at least once as her mother. The complaint states that each time Jane was checked out of school she was "brutally and viciously raped, sodomized and molested" by Keyes before he returned her back into the elementary school.
     School officials at Covington County Elementary School never asked Keyes for identification nor did they check the "permission to check-out form" that each parent or guardian submitted to the school with the names of adults authorized to pick up their children, according to the complaint.
     Doe's father and grandmother, Daniel and Geneva Magee, filed the federal complaint against the Covington County School District, several educators and Keyes. The lawsuit stated that the school's policy regarding student check-out "amounted to allowing free reign for a sexual predator to prey on a young girl without so much as an attempt [to] stop or monitor her comings and goings from school property."
     A Mississippi federal judge dismissed the case against the school and its officials, finding that they had no duty to protect the girl.
     The New Orleans-based federal appeals court disagreed and reversed on Aug. 5. Does' family stated a triable claim under the 14th Amendment by alleging that the school "violated her substantive due-process rights by being deliberately indifferent to nine-year-old Jane's safety when the school affirmatively deprived Jane of her liberty to care for herself by forcing her into the sole custody of an unauthorized adult ... for the school's known and intended purpose of facilitating his taking her off of the school's grounds," according to the 51-page decision.
     The Magees alleged "in minute detail" that the school had a "special relationship" with the minor because "Jane was required to attend the school throughout the entire school day, out of the presence of her legal guardian and without any ability to leave; and Jane's exclusive confinement by the school, entirely without the protection of her legal guardian, in combination with her young age, made Jane wholly dependent on the School for her safety," the decision states.
     Finding that the school did indeed have a "special relationship" with Jane, "we conclude that the school did act with deliberate indifference to Jane's safety by checking her out to an unauthorized adult (whom they did not know) without verifying his identity to confirm that he was authorized by Jane's legal guardian to check her out of school," Judge Jacques Weiner wrote for a three-judge panel.
     Agreeing that qualified immunity protects the school officials from being sued in their individual capacities, however, the court affirmed dismissal in that regard and remanded back to District Court for further proceedings. Attachment