The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that a 14-year-old who was raped by a high school student, who also was a registered sex offender, can sue the school district for negligence and breach of duty.
The court decided in a 5-4 ruling that the Bethel School District did not protect the young student from the older sex offender, and that a jury should hear the case.
The case explained that the 14-year-old girl was on the middle school track team, while 18-year-old Nicholas Clark was on the varsity track team for the high school. The two teams shared the district’s track and field facilities, which was where the two teenagers met in April 2007.
Clark had been assigned to the tasks of acting as the younger kids’ coach and mentoring the younger athletes, reports Christine Clarridge for The Seattle Times. But no one was told that Clark had been convicted of indecent liberties after sexually assaulting another middle school student in 2004. The court case papers showed that Clark was required to register as a Level 1 sex offender, those least likely to reoffend.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office did notify the high school’s principal, but the principal did not share this information with faculty members. Nor did the administrator create a safety plan that would have kept Clark away from students who were younger than he, which was a requirement, according to attorneys for the plaintiff.
The two students began texting and one day after the two students met, Clark asked the 14-year-old to skip practice and join him at a fast-food restaurant for a meal. But instead of having a meal, Clark took the teen to his house where he raped her.
The following month, Clark was charged with third-degree rape and then pleaded guilty to second-degree assault.
Initially, the 14-year-old’s suit was dismissed by the Pierce County Superior Court since the student had left the school grounds and was no longer in the custody of the school.
The appeals court reversed this decision, and after the Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court ruling, it remands the case to the Supreme Court. Justice Steven C. González wrote that it was the school’s failure to predict that a sex offender would repeat his crime. This decision contributed to the girl’s assault even though she had left the school campus.
“Washington courts have long recognized that school districts have ‘an enhanced and solemn duty’ of reasonable care to protect their students, which includes the duty to protect their students from the foreseeable risk of harm the students may inflict on each other.”
González also quoted a ruling by the Idaho Supreme Court that stated:
“… the relevant inquiry is to the location of the negligence rather than the location of the injury.”
One of the dissenting judges, Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen, argued that school districts do not owe students protection when they are not in their custody. She continued by pointing out that even if a responsibility by the principal had been breached, it was not the reason the girl was harmed.
Madsen also said that even registered sex offenders have a legal right to privacy in their school setting. She wrote that the majority decision opens the door for districts to be held liable for things they are not able to control, according to The News Tribune’s Alexis Krell.
Attorney Julie Anne Kays said her client (spoken of as N.L. in the case proceedings) would finally have her day in court. She also commented:
“When it comes down to it, the school breached its obligation to protect N.L. and others like her. If they had done their job, we wouldn’t be here.”