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Teachers, school boards protected from negligent-discipline claims, Md. appeals court says

Neither Maryland public school teachers nor school boards can be sued based on allegations that their negligent handling of student misbehavior caused another student’s injuries, the state’s second highest court has ruled.

In a reported decision filed Tuesday, the Court of Special Appeals held that a 2001 federal law prevents teachers from being sued for their disciplinary decisions unless they acted with willful, reckless or criminal misconduct; gross negligence; or a “conscious, flagrant indifference” to the injured student’s rights.

In addition, Maryland case law barring claims against school boards for providing “negligent education” includes allegations of negligent student discipline, the appellate court held in its 3-0 ruling.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in upholding the dismissal of a claim Brandon and Robin Gambrill brought against teachers at Cambridge middle school and the Dorchester County School Board alleging that their negligent failure to discipline unruly students resulted in their daughter suffering multiple concussions.

The appellate court initially filed its ruling in July as an unreported decision, meaning its reach did not extend beyond the specific litigants in the case. The refiling as a reported decision this week means the holding applies statewide.

The Gambrills have filed a petition with the Court of Appeals asking the high court to review the decision and revive the lawsuit. The Gambrills argue through counsel that Maryland law permits claims against public school teachers for negligence in discipline while protecting them against financial loss by requiring indemnification by school boards.

The Court of Special Appeals decision “eviscerates this careful balance” by the legislature, said Cary J. Hansel III, the Gambrills’ attorney. “It leaves any victim at school completely without a remedy. It leaves a free hand for any misconduct by school employees.”

Hansel is with Hansel Law PC in Baltimore.

Andrew G. Scott, the attorney for the teachers and school board, hailed the court’s decision.

“It rightfully acknowledges that the difficult disciplinary decisions that happen every day in public schools shouldn’t be second-guessed by the courts,” said Scott, of Pessin Katz Law PA in Towson. “It rightfully acknowledges the difficult job that educators have every day.”

A Dorchester County Circuit Court judge granted summary judgment to the Mace’s Lane Middle School teachers and board, saying they were protected by the federal Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Protection Act and the Maryland Court of Appeals 1982 decision in Hunter v. Board of Education of Montgomery County, respectively.

In affirming that decision, the Court of Special Appeals said Coverdell’s immunity provision preempts Maryland law, which permits teachers to be sued for negligence but requires that school boards pay the awarded damages. The court said federal preemption applies as a condition of Maryland’s acceptance of federal Elementary and Secondary Act funds and the absence of a state law giving greater protection to teachers against suit than the federal statute.

The Hunter decision’s protection for school boards against being sued for the negligent delivery of education also covers the negligent meting out of discipline because punishment for unruly behavior at school is part of the educational process, the Court of Special Appeals said.

The court noted that Maryland schools have largely abandoned the “exclusionary model” of discipline, which relies on suspension or expulsion, in favor of the “restorative model,” which takes a more didactic approach that includes mediation, conflict resolution and social emotional learning.

“Student discipline is an essential part of education,” Judge Dan Friedman wrote for the court.

“More importantly, we think it is obvious that the manner in which students are disciplined has important educational consequences for both the students being disciplined and their classmates,” Friedman added. “Critically, educational experts who advocate for the adoption of the restorative model don’t consider discipline to be separate from the program of academic instruction, but as a vital component of the educational program. We are persuaded that student discipline is a vital and integral part of our educational system and must necessarily be covered by the Hunter line of cases.”

The Gambrills sued the teachers and school board in May 2018 after their sixth-grade daughter – identified in court papers as S. — had been physically and verbally assaulted by at least six students resulting in two concussions. The altercations had persisted despite efforts by teachers and administrators to separate the girl from her aggressors by changing their class schedules and locker locations, issuing in-school suspensions and pursuing external mediation – measures the Gambrills claimed were negligently insufficient.

In granting summary judgment to the teachers and school board, Judge Matthew A. Maciarello credited their attempts to protect the Gambrills’ daughter and restore order.

“No reasonable jury could conclude that the defendants were negligent in supervising (S.) and other students at Mace’s Lane,” Maciarello said.

“I conclude … that a cause of action here would create that sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of well-intentioned educators who are tasked with the job of resolving peer disputes among adolescents,” Maciarello added. “Again, I find that there is, not just an absence of evidence to support the allegations that the defendants failed to adequately respond to, investigate, and prevent reasonably foreseeable harm to (S.), it’s to the contrary. The evidence shows that the defendants responded and took action in response to the allegations of (S.’s) family.”

The Gambrills then sought review by the Court of Special Appeals.

Friedman was joined in the opinion by Judges Michael W. Reed and Steven B. Gould, whom Gov. Larry Hogan named to the Court of Appeals last week.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Brandon Gambrill et al. v. Board of Education of Dorchester County et al., No. 886, September Term 2019.