Education Law Update: Rhode Island Supreme Court Affirms Lower Court’s Ruling on a School’s Duty to Ensure Student Safety

On June 28, the Rhode Island Supreme Court issued their opinion in Dextraze v. Bernard, a case involving a high school student who assaulted and seriously injured another student during the school day. The Rhode Island Superior Court found the school district liable to the injured student based upon a breach of its duty to maintain student safety. The school district appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The plaintiff in the Dextraze case did nothing to provoke the assault and sought teacher intervention, to no avail. When the plaintiff recovered from his injuries and returned to the school, there was no follow-up regarding how his safety would be maintained moving forward. However, the primary issue the Court dealt with was the historical behavioral issues of the student-assailant that went unaddressed by the school district leading up to the assault in this case.

In the opinion written by Justice Long, the Supreme Court upheld the Superior Court’s reasoning that although the guarantee of a safe learning environment for students found in RIGL §16-2-7 does not expressly create a private right of action, the school nevertheless has “a duty to ‘provide adequate supervision to the students’ under this Court’s holding in Daniels v. Fluette, 64 A.3d 302 (R.I. 2013).” Dextraze v. Bernard, No. 2020-48-APPEAL., 2021 WL 2640019, at *3 (R.I. June 28, 2021). Justice Long’s opinion goes on to clarify that, “Although we do not expect schools to be insurers of students’ safety, we do require schools to exercise a degree of care that includes protecting students from reasonably foreseeable harm.” Id.

What does this mean for my school/district?

  1. Ensure school/district protocols are established and up to date for students with behavioral issues. How are students being monitored? What interventions are in place? Are interventions being implemented, evaluated, and measured for effectiveness?
  2. Follow through with school/district protocols for ongoing behavioral issues and document efforts to manage/monitor foreseeable risks. A key fact on which Dextraze turned was the documented history of behavioral issues exhibited by the student-assailant with little to no school intervention. In the Court’s view, it was only a matter of time before the student-assailant seriously hurt someone or themselves.
  3. Ensure adequate staffing to address behavioral needs of students. An apparent breakdown in communication across school staff roles contributed to the school’s liability in Dextraze. Teachers, guidance counselors, school nurses, social workers, and school administrators were not on the same page with regard to the real and imminent threat that the student-assailant was likely to assault another one of his fellow students.
  4. Ensure general safety protocols are followed. General safety protocols like teachers and staff monitoring lunch, dismissal, or the hallways in between classes are critical to follow. In Dextraze, the student who was assaulted was struck multiple times in the hallway of the school with no teacher intervention. Witnesses attested to no teacher being in the hallway during transition. It is critical for schools/districts to ensure staffing is adequate to ensure non-instructional activities in the school are adequately supervised by adult teachers and staff.

If there are any questions or concerns regarding the status of your school/district given this recent court ruling, please contact Matthew R. Plain or your Barton Gilman attorney at 401-273-7171 for assistance or guidance moving forward.

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