Negligent Hiring, Supervision, and Retention in California Schools

Sadly, California’s schools aren’t impervious to negligent, reckless, and malicious employees. The courts will often hold the school district strictly liable for the actions or inactions of its employees if they result in student injury. Since the school district employs teachers and staff members, the district must abide by the same standards of care as other employers in California. These duties include prudent hiring, training, and supervision practices. If a breach of these duties results in a negligent employee who injures a student, the courts may place responsibility for damages with the school district – not the individual teacher.


Rules of School District Liability in Hiring


Direct liability refers to the liability of a school district through its teachers and other staff members. Despite employees being their own decision-makers, a court might hold the school district directly liable for employee behaviors and actions. This is because the courts see employees as extensions of the employer. If an individual district employee knew or reasonably should have known that a teacher posed a risk of harm to students and failed to act, it may ultimately be the school district’s fault.

A school district’s employees have a duty to protect students from foreseeable harm. Knowledge that a teacher or staff member poses a threat thus requires the district to take action to reasonably prevent harm. If a district employee responsible for hiring, supervising, or retaining an employee breaches his or her duty of care, the courts will hold the district directly liable for its own negligence – despite the fact that the staff member actually committed the act in question. It’s a breach of the school district’s duty of care to fail to prevent foreseeable harm through inadequate or negligent hiring, supervision, and retention.

While many forms of employee misconduct are the employer’s liability, there are instances where the courts won’t hold a school district directly liable. If an employee’s alleged wrongdoing is personal in nature, for instance, the courts may deem that the employee’s mere presence at the school during the act isn’t enough for action against the district.

Responsibility for malicious or wrongful acts that substantially deviate from employment duties may not fall with the school district. The school district will be liable only in cases where the courts deem an employee’s misconduct vicariously related to his or her district-appointed duties.


Real-World Case Examples


In John R. v. Oakland Unified School Dist. (1989), a 14-year-old student brought a case against the school district for alleged sexual molestation by a math teacher. The molestation allegedly occurred while the plaintiff was participating in an officially sanctioned extra-curricular activity in the teacher’s apartment. The California Supreme Court ruled that the school district wasn’t vicariously liable for the teacher’s misbehavior because the connection between personal, sexual misconduct and the instructional duties that the district confers to teachers was too thin. Since sexual assault doesn’t fall within the range of allocable risks to the teacher’s employer, the district wasn’t liable.

In a different case, Virginia G. v. ABC Unified School District (1993), a high school student alleged that a teacher sexually harassed and assaulted her while at school. The student’s attorneys based her case against the district in part on the belief that the defendants didn’t require adequate background checks or fingerprinting before hiring teachers.

The court allowed her action for negligent hiring and supervision, stating that the individual district employee who hired and/or supervised teachers should have known about the teacher’s prior sexual misconduct. Prior knowledge of the misconduct means that the district employee should have known the teacher posed a foreseeable harm to students. Failing to act to prevent the harm places liability with the school district.