IL Supreme Court Rules School and Individual Administrators May Be Liable For “Passing” An Abusive Teacher to Another Institution
August 15, 2012
The Illinois Supreme Court recently held in Doe-3 v. McLean County Unit District No. 5 that a school and individual administrators can be liable for failing to disclose accurate information to a potential employer about a teacher terminated for sexual misconduct with students, if the teacher repeats such abusive behavior toward students at the subsequent institution. This ruling involved communications between two school districts, but could also apply to similar communications about professors or instructors who engage in sexually inappropriate behavior at successive institutions of higher education.
According to the plaintiffs’ complaint, a teacher employed by McLean County Unit School District No. 5 in Normal, Illinois, engaged in sexual misconduct with students. The complaint also alleges that the teacher was suspended twice and ultimately entered a resignation agreement with the district prior to the end of the school year due to the sexual misconduct. When the teacher applied to work in Urbana School District No. 116, Urbana requested verification of his prior employment from McLean County. McLean County verified that the teacher had been employed during the school year in question, but allegedly neglected to state that he resigned prior to the end of that year. Urbana hired the teacher, who went on to abuse eight other students. The teacher pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse and was sentenced to 48 years in prison.
Parents of two of the abused students in Urbana sued both school districts, as well as individual administrators and board members. The trial court dismissed the charges against the McLean County defendants, holding that the district and its personnel did not owe a “duty of care” to the students in Urbana. The parents appealed.
A divided Illinois Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court, holding that, while McLean County and its personnel did not have an affirmative duty to warn Urbana, they did have a duty to accurately report the number of days the teacher had worked in that district upon Urbana’s request. The court reasoned that the resulting injuries were reasonably foreseeable and that an accurate report of the teacher’s early departure may have prompted Urbana to further investigate and consequently refuse to hire him. The court further determined that the individual defendants’ failure to provide an accurate report could be considered “willful and wanton” conduct, which could lead to individual liability. The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. Note that at this juncture, no evidentiary hearing has been held to establish the facts.
By their complaint, the parents also alleged that McLean County officials failed to report the teacher to DCFS, in violation of their responsibilities under of the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act (ANCRA). Other courts have held that a violation of ANCRA does not give rise to a private cause of action, and the Court majority did not address the issue.
The holding in this case is relatively narrow, requiring educational institutions to provide accurate information when responding to requests from other institutions about former employees with a history of misconduct that harmed others. The decision highlights the potential for individual liability for personnel involved with communication regarding such employees and also serves as a reminder of the importance of ANCRA’s requirement that school personnel report all suspected child abuse and neglect to DCFS, including when the suspected abuser is a teacher. It is also worth noting that the current version of ANCRA requires that, if a school (K-12 district or post-secondary college or university) makes a report to DCFS concerning one of its employees and another school inquires about the employee’s job performance or qualifications because it is considering hiring the employee, the first school must disclose that a DCFS report was made.