April 2018 Newsletter – Community College Districts

California Universities and Colleges Now Owe Students A Duty of Protection from Third Parties

Historically, elementary and secondary school districts have owed a high duty of care to students based in part on compulsory education laws and the statutory duty to hold pupils to strict account for their conduct on the way to and from school, on the playgrounds, or during recess.  The reason is that school officials are said to stand in loco parentis, in the place of parents, to their students, with similar powers and responsibilities.

As a general rule, no community college district, or any district officer or employee, “shall be responsible or in any way liable for the conduct or safety of any student or the public school at any time when such student is not in school property, unless the district has undertaken to provide transportation for such student to and from the school premises, has undertaken a school-sponsored activity off the premises of such school, has otherwise specifically assumed such responsibility or liability or has failed to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances.” (Educ. Code § 87706.) In analyzing these obligations, courts have noted the difference between high school students, who are subject to compulsory education, and adult college students who “attend school and participate in school activities voluntarily.” Specifically, because college administrators have abandoned in loco parentis supervision of adult students and have recognized the students’ rights to control and regulate their own lives, colleges and universities may no longer be charged with a general duty of care to supervise student activities. Accordingly, courts have previously held a community college does not owe the same duty of care as an elementary or high school would to its students. The “presumed maturity” of college students warrants different treatment in terms of supervision and “colleges and universities do not owe similarly broad duties of supervision to all their students” as may apply in a K-12 district. As stated by one federal court, “the modern American college is not an insurer of the safety of its students. Whatever may have been its responsibility in an earlier era, the authoritarian role of today’s college administrations has been notably diluted in recent decades.”

However, on March 22, 2018, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling that may change this established understanding, holding that colleges and universities do owe a duty to protect students from foreseeable harm under certain circumstances.  (Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court (Rosen) (2018) ___ Cal.5th ___ (Case No. S230568.)  In Regents, the plaintiff student was stabbed in class by another student and sued the university.  The lower court had overturned the denial of summary judgment on the ground that the university did not owe a duty to adult students.  However, the California Supreme Court reversed, finding “universities [and colleges] do have a legal duty, under certain circumstances, to protect or warn their students from foreseeable violence in the classroom or during curricular activities.”  

In reaching its determination, the Court first looked at the relationship between students and colleges, determining that colleges provide students with far more than just an education, including “social, athletic, and cultural opportunities, creating a discrete community for their students, regardless of whether they live on campus.”  The Court further held that while colleges had superior control over that environment and imposed rules and restrictions on on-campus conduct regarding safety, students were comparatively vulnerable and dependent on the universities for a safe environment.  In determining whether this resulted in a duty of care owed to students, the Court found that the following factors first set out in Rowlands v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal. 2d 108 weighed in favor of the university’s liability:  (1) the foreseeability of harm; (2) the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury; (3) the closeness in connection between the injury and the defendant’s conduct; (4) the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct; (5) the policy of preventing future harm; (6) the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing liability; and (7) the availability of insurance for the risk involved.

The Court also looked at the public policies involved in finding liability.  The Court pointed out that since the Virginia Tech shootings, many colleges and universities had already begun formulating protection policies, crisis management policies, and had increased mental health availability for its students. Further, UCLA’s website proclaimed that it was “one of the safest campuses in the country” and that it had increased student fees to pay for enhanced security and mental health programs. The Court further noted that colleges and universities typically have access to more information regarding potential threats.  In the specific case before the Court, even though the attacking student denied suicidal or homicidal thinking, he had repeatedly claimed to have heard voices of other students making fun of him and been evaluated by University mental health care professionals who found him to be suffering delusions, auditory hallucinations, paranoid thinking, possible schizophrenia and major depressive disorder.  Based upon all these factors, the Court held that colleges and universities now owe a duty of reasonable care to protect their students from foreseeable violence during curricular activities. 

In reaching its decision, the Court extended the responsibility of the University beyond the campus boundaries, finding that a special relationship existed that would create a duty owed to the students not only in classrooms, but also in school-related activities. The Court limited this obligation, however, by holding that its decision did not apply to students’ activities off campus in social activities unrelated to school, where the college has no control. 

Throughout its decision, the Court used “university” and “college” interchangeably, stating the decision applied equally to “all schools that provide postsecondary education to enrolled students.” Accordingly, it clearly intended that its decision was not limited to California universities, but extended to its community college system as well.  As a result of this decision, community colleges should begin formulate plans on how to implement this new duty.  Although by no means comprehensive, this may include training multidisciplinary teams of staff and professionals, improving mental health services, and consultation with campus faculty and staff who are concerned about a student’s mental health.  It may also include establishing outreach programs and conducting workshops, seminars, discussion groups, and presentations to promote mental health and wellness and address issues such as depression awareness, suicide prevention, and online self-assessment screening tools and mental health resources targeting college-age issues.  It may also include considering the formation of multi-disciplinary behavioral or threat management teams to address issues, problems, or individuals who may pose a potential threat to the campus community, as well as the establishment of campus-wide emergency mass notification systems that include broadcast email, text, voicemail messages to all campus accounts and subscribed wireless devices. Each school will likely have needs specific to its own campuses.

For more information regarding this article, please contact Ken Baisch at kbaisch@ericksonlaw.com. For questions in general regarding this newsletter, please contact Kristina Limon at klimon@ericksonlaw.com.

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This publication was prepared solely for information purposes and should not be construed to be legal advice. If you would like further information on this matter, please contact our office.

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