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Educators Resist Lawsuit Arising from Kindergarten Bullying Incident

Image of a child with her head in her hands being comforted by a woman (iStock/sturti)

Court considers whether elementary school employees should be immune from lawsuits after alleged bullying incident led to injury.

Image of a child with her head in her hands being comforted by a woman (iStock/sturti)

Court considers whether elementary school employees should be immune from lawsuits after alleged bullying incident led to injury.

Ohio courts haven’t considered “imperfect supervision” by public school teachers and administrators to be the kind of reckless behavior that would make the schools liable for a student’s injuries. But when it comes to children in their “tender years,” the parents of a kindergartner punctured with a pencil argue that failing to protect their daughter from bullying subjects the school district to financial consequences.

Statewide and Toledo-area school and government organizations have rallied around three administrators from a Toledo Public School District kindergarten who face losing their immunity from liability after a child suffered injuries from a 2016 incident. The groups have submitted amicus curiae briefs supporting the educators’ position in a case the Ohio Supreme Court will consider during oral arguments next week.

Younger Child Teased by Classmates A child identified in court records as “A.R.” was evaluated as gifted. At age 4 she was enrolled by her parents as an early entrant at DeVeaux Elementary School. Soon after the school year began, A.R.’s parents began reporting to school officials that other kindergarteners, including a child identified as “S,” began teasing A.R. for being 4 and called her a “baby.” A.R.’s father spoke with Assistant Principal Cynthia Skaff about the teasing, particularly about S’s teasing of A.R. Skaff spoke to the children about the concern, and she periodically checked on A.R. during the school year. School Principal Ralph Schade was made aware of the teasing, spoke to the children in A.R.’s classroom about it, and checked on A.R. throughout the school year.

Amanda Lute, A.R.’s classroom teacher, missed the first few months of school while on leave, but was notified about the teasing. Lute described the behavior as “not that unusual in kindergarten,” but said she monitored the situation to ensure it stopped.

In March 2016, when A.R. was 5 years old, she and S were at a table together in Lute’s room. S may have poked A.R. with a sharp pencil. Lute said she and a classroom aide were unaware of the incident, there was no crying or screaming after it took place, and no one reported the disturbance. Four days later, the parents reported to the school that A.R. had been injured by what they termed as a “stabbing and slashing” with a pencil, and that A.R. said S did it to her in Lute’s classroom. S told Principal Schade she poked A.R. with a pencil, and her teacher told her to tell A.R. she was sorry.

Parents Sue School District A.R.’s parents filed a lawsuit against Lute, Skaff, and Schade, making a number of claims, including recklessness. The school district claimed the three educators were immune from liability under R.C. 2744.03(A)(6).

The school district maintains that “recklessness” has been defined through Court decisions as a “perverse disregard for a known risk.” Based on the record, the educators claim that S had no history of being violent, and that they repeatedly addressed teasing when they were made aware of it. Lute disputes the incident took place in her classroom. Even if it did happen there, the educators weren’t acting with a perverse disregard for a known risk when they failed to anticipate that a child with no violent history would poke another child with a pencil, the district maintains.

School Oversight Lax, Parents Maintain DeVeaux employees were repeatedly informed of the teasing and bullying their daughter was receiving, especially from S, the parents assert. Yet several months into the school year, Lute placed S and A.R. in close proximity at the same table and supplied them with pencils and a pencil sharpener, knowing that children can be injured with sharp pencils, they note.

Ohio court decisions have placed a heightened duty on educators to protect children of “tender years” from harm because of these children’s inability to appreciate risks, and the parents maintain there is enough evidence for the Court to return the case to the trial court where a jury can decide if the educators were reckless in their failure to protect their daughter from a physical attack.

Oral Argument Details The Supreme Court will consider three cases on July 7, including the appeal of a death sentence.  The Court will hear four more cases , including A.J.R. v. Toledo City School District Bd. of Edn. on July 8. Oral arguments begin at 9 a.m. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court will hold its session by videoconference. All arguments are streamed live online at sc.ohio.gov, and broadcast live and archived on The Ohio Channel.

In addition to these highlights, the Court’s Office of Public Information released preview articles today about each case, available through the case-name links.

Tuesday, July 7 In State v. Bowers, a Hamilton county man was sentenced in 2014 to 25 years to life for the rape of a child. A state law provides for a 15-year minimum sentence if the victim is under age 10 and a 25-year minimum sentence if the offender purposely compelled the victim by force or threat of force. The jury made a finding about the child’s age, but it didn’t make a finding of force. The county prosecutor contends that force is implicit in a child rape and the trial court had the option to impose either 15 years to life or 25 years to life. The offender counters that based on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, facts that increase mandatory minimum sentences must be submitted to the jury, and that step wasn’t taken in this case.

A man who moved from place to place in Ashland County during a four-month period in 2016 was convicted of the murders of two women. He also was found guilty of rape, kidnapping, and other offenses connected to the murders and to an attack on another woman, who survived.  The trial court sentenced the man to death plus 90 years. In State v. Grate, his automatic appeal of the death sentence to the Ohio Supreme Court, the man maintains that pretrial publicity tainted the jury pool and his lawyers failed to ask for a change of venue, didn’t block the admission of certain evidence, and should’ve made a greater effort to seek an insanity verdict, among other claims.

A Bellaire man was found shot to death in his home in May 2017. A married man from Brilliant, Ohio, with whom he was having an affair was convicted of the murder. The trial court sentenced the Brilliant man to life in prison without the possibility of parole. State law prohibits appeals of life-without-parole sentences for murder or aggravated murder. The man in State v. Kinney challenges the constitutionality of a law that blocks any review of his sentence, maintaining that Ohio is the only state with such a ban. The attorney general argues that murderers don’t have a constitutional right to appeal their sentences.

Wednesday, July 8 In 2016, two men convicted of sex offenses in separate cases in Florida moved to Ohio and were classified as sexual predators under Ohio’s version of Megan’s Law. The men state that they were classified as sexual offenders in Florida, which allowed them to request removal from the state registry after 25 years. With a sexual predator classification in Ohio, though, they must register their addresses for the rest of their lives. They argue in Lingle and Grosser v. State that the states’ classifications aren’t substantially similar and whether they are likely to reoffend – which is required to be a sexual predator in Ohio – should be determined in a court hearing. The attorney general responds that the Adam Walsh Act, a tiered sex-offender classification system effective in Ohio in 2008, applies to the men’s cases, and they aren’t entitled to hearings.

The city of Columbus enacted local ordinances in May 2018 to further regulate firearm use. Two nonprofit organizations advocating for the rights of firearm owners, along with one Columbus resident, filed a lawsuit, arguing the city laws violate R.C. 9.68, which was enacted by the Ohio General Assembly 12 years earlier to provide uniform statewide regulation of firearms. The city maintains the gun groups lack standing to bring the challenge because they haven’t been personally impacted by the laws. In Ohioans for Concealed Carry v. City of Columbus, the groups argue that R.C. 9.68, and other state laws, allow them to challenge the constitutionality of local firearm regulations.

In 2017, two Monroe County landowners filed a lawsuit to extinguish any rights to severed oil and gas royalty interests beneath their land. Three individuals responded, stating they acquired the oil and gas royalty interests from a prior oil and gas rights holder who purchased the rights in 1944. The royalty owners maintain that under the Ohio Dormant Mineral Act, their royalty rights were properly preserved. The landowners maintain that under the Ohio Marketable Title Act, the royalty owners’ rights extinguished in 1999. In Bode v. West, the Court will consider whether the Dormant Mineral Act is the exclusive method for terminating oil and gas rights.