OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A divided state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a jury should be allowed to decide whether a school district was negligent in a 2007 case where a junior high school student was raped off campus by a high school student and fellow track member who was a registered sex offender.
In a 5-4 ruling, the high court affirmed a Court of Appeals ruling against Bethel School District. While the high school principal was aware that Nicholas Clark was a registered sex offender, that information was not relayed to coaches or teachers, the court noted.
The majority, led by Justice Steven Gonzalez, ruled that the district had “a duty to students to use reasonable care to protect them from foreseeable injuries” and that whether the assault fell within that scope should be decided by a jury.
Attorney Julie Anne Kays said that her client, identified in court records as N.L., has “waited a long time to have her day in court.”
“When it comes down to it, the school breached its obligation to protect N.L. and others like her,” Kays said. “If they had done their job, we wouldn’t be here.”
The dissent, led by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, argued that the majority’s ruling was too expansive and “exposes school districts to liability for events over which they have no control.”
N.L met Clark at school track practice in April 2007 when she was 14 and he was 18. Her junior high and Clark’s high school shared the track field between them, and once they were introduced by a mutual friend they began exchanging texts.
N.L. and the coaches on the field were unaware that Clark was a registered sex offender, court records show. Clark had pleaded guilty to attempted indecent liberties after a 2004 incident in which he sexually assaulted another student at Bethel Junior High School. Under the terms of his sentence, he was also ordered to have no contact with people two or more years younger than himself.
However, the court noted that even though the Pierce County sheriff notified Bethel High School’s principal that Clark was a registered sex offender, “there is considerable evidence in the record that suggests the principal did not inform Clark’s teachers, coaches, or relevant staff of Clark’s status.” There was also no safety plan developed.
The day after N.L. and Clark met, they skipped track practice, and while N.L. believed they were going to Burger King, they ended up at Clark’s home instead, where N.L. was raped.
N.L. told a friend what had happened, the school and N.L.’s mother were informed and the school called police. Clark was charged with third-degree rape and ultimately pleaded guilty to second-degree assault.
In 2012, N.L. sued the Bethel School District for negligence. A Pierce County Superior Court judge, in dismissing the case, agreed with the district’s argument that because N.L. had skipped track practice and left campus, she was no longer under the school district’s care. The Court of Appeals reversed that ruling.
In upholding the Court of Appeals ruling, the majority said that if the track coach had known Clark was a sex offender who had been convicted of sexually assaulting a younger girl, the coach could have taken steps to keep Clark away from the junior high students.
“Whether the district failed to meet its duty and whether any such failure caused N.L.’s injury are properly matters for the jury,” Gonzalez wrote.
The dissent argued that a school district cannot control what students do in their own homes.
Madsen wrote that a school district’s duty “is to protect the children in its custody from harm; it is not to protect children in their homes or in the home of another student from harm.”
“To hold otherwise would be to expand a school district’s liability beyond reason,” she said.
A message left with an attorney for the school district was not immediately returned.
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