Appellate Court Determines that Student Handbook is not a Contract
In Mulvey v. Carl Sandburg High School et al., a family sued its school district and various district officials and coaches alleging breach of contract for the District’s alleged failure to enforce the anti-bullying policies in its student handbook. The parents, on behalf of their daughters, also brought tort claims against the District alleging a willful and wanton failure to address the bullying conduct as required by common law, Illinois statutes, and the District’s policies. The Illinois Appellate Court (First District) determined that the school district was not liable.
In their complaint, the parents focused on the anti-bullying policies set forth in the student handbook and claimed that the handbook constituted a contract that was breached when the District failed to rectify bullying against their daughters when they were harassed, physically assaulted and intimidated by their basketball teammates. Parents also alleged that in failing to address bullying, the District engaged in willful and wanton conduct. In response, the District moved to dismiss, arguing that as a matter of law, a student handbook does not form the basis of a contract. With regard to the claim of willful and wanton conduct, the District contended that the Tort Immunity Act’s discretionary immunity provision barred the claim. The circuit court ultimately dismissed the parents’ suit, and the parents appealed.
On appeal, the Appellate Court looked at the elements of a valid contract – offer, acceptance, and consideration (anything of value promised to another in making a contract) – and determined that a public school student handbook cannot form the basis of a contract. Parents argued that the bullying prevention provisions of the handbook were an offer which they accepted by enrolling their daughters in the District. The Court determined that the bullying prevention provisions were not an offer because there was not a specific promise to prevent bullying; rather, bullying prevention was a goal. While Parents argued that sending their daughters to school constituted consideration because they were paying for attendance through their property taxes, the Court rejected this argument, determining that school attendance is not a bargained-for exchange because parents are legally obligated to send their students to school.
With regard to the claim of willful and wanton conduct, the Court determined that the District was immune under the Tort Immunity Act. The Tort Immunity Act protects government entities and employees from liability when engaging in policy making and exercising discretion, even if the actions are negligent or willful and wanton. Because the implementation of the District’s anti-bullying policy was discretionary in nature and the policy did not mandate a specific response to every set of circumstances, the District and its employees were immune from liability.
In sum, the appellate court found for the School District on all bases and dismissed the family’s claim. While this decision is favorable for the school district, as those in the school community are aware, bullying in schools has been a focus of attention of advocacy groups, legislators, and courts. Districts must ensure that their bullying policies are in compliance with state law and that staff are appropriately trained to identify and respond to claims of bullying.