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D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School

Filed: December 31, 1991.

D.R., A MINOR CHILD, BY HER PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN, L.R., AND L.R., INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OWN RIGHT, APPELLANTS,
v.
MIDDLE BUCKS AREA VOCATIONAL TECHNICAL SCHOOL; WILLIAM GOODE; JAMES C. BAZZEL; MARTHA RICHINO; SUSAN PETERS; BUCKS COUNTY INTERMEDIATE NO. 22; CHRISTINA TUTTLE; PENN RIDGE SCHOOL DISTRICT; CHARLES FAMBRO; FRED FREEMAN; JAMES A. GALLAGHER; BRIAN MILLER; MARC R. RATCLIFFE; JAMES M. SPERLING; LESTER SUTPHIN AND L.H., BUCKS COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLANT, V. MIDDLE BUCKS AREA VOCATIONAL TECHNICAL SCHOOL; AND WILLIAM GOODE AND JAMES C. BAZZEL AND MARTHA RICHINO AND SUSAN PETERS AND JAMES A. GALLAGHER AND BRIAN MILLER AND MARC R. RATCLIFFE AND JAMES M. SPERLING AND LESTER SUTPHIN



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. D.C. Civil No. 90-03018 and 90-03060

Before: Sloviter, Chief Judge, Greenberg and Seitz, Circuit Judges.

Author: Seitz

Opinion OF THE COURT

SEITZ, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs, D.R., a minor child, by her parent, L.R. and L.H., both high school students, as well as L.R. in her own right,*fn1 appeal the decision and order of the district court dismissing their amended complaints. Future references herein to "plaintiffs" will include only D.R., by her parent and L.H. unless otherwise noted. These complaints asserted claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985(3), 1986 and 1988*fn2 as well as state law claims. Federal jurisdiction was asserted under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1341 and 1343 and pendant jurisdiction over the state law claims. This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

Because the district court granted defendants' motions to dismiss each of the complaints under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim, this court must "accept as true the facts alleged in the amended complaints and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom." Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990). We therefore turn to the allegations in the amended complaints.

I. AMENDED COMPLAINTS

Plaintiffs were two female students in a graphics arts class at Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School ("Middle Bucks").*fn3 They allege that while attending the arts class for several months during the 1989-90 school year several male students [hereinafter the "student defendants"] in the same class physically, verbally and sexually molested them. This conduct took place primarily in the unisex bathroom and a darkroom, both of which were part of the graphic arts classroom.

Plaintiff, D.R., avers that the student defendants grabbed her and either forced or carried her into the bathroom or darkroom on a regular basis and physically abused her. She asserts that such conduct took place on an average of two to four times per week from January to May of 1990. Plaintiff, L.H., claims that some of the student defendants molested her two to three times per week from December 1989 to May of 1990. Plaintiffs allege that the sexual molestation consisted of offensive touching of their breasts and genitalia, sodomization and forced acts of fellatio. The student defendants also allegedly forced plaintiffs to watch similar acts performed on other students.

Defendant Susan Peters was the student-teacher in the graphic arts classroom during the time of the conduct in question. Plaintiffs do not claim to have informed Peters of the molestation but assert that Peters was or should have been in the classroom during the time of the acts complained of and either heard or should have heard the incidents taking place. Peters did experience difficulty in controlling the class generally and allegedly was exposed to a variety of misconduct including obscene language and gestures, and physically, but not sexually, offensive touching of females including herself in the main classroom.

Plaintiff, L.H., avers that in December of 1988, she told defendant Bazzel, Assistant Director of Middle Bucks, of an attempt by one student defendant to force her into the darkroom for the purpose of engaging in sexual conduct. She alleges that Bazzel did not take action to correct the situation. Plaintiffs also allege that other individual defendants had knowledge of the severe non-sexual misconduct occurring in the classroom.

Based on the foregoing allegations, the amended complaints assert violations of plaintiffs' civil rights under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985(3) by Middle Bucks, Penn Ridge School District, Bucks County Intermediate Unit No.22, and the teachers and officials individually named [hereinafter the "school defendants"]. The student defendants were also joined. However, since they were not state actors, those claims were properly dismissed by the district court.

II. DISTRICT COURT RULING

On the basis of the record then before it, the district court found that defendants, Goode, Peters and Bazzel were entitled to qualified immunity under section 1983. D.R., L.R. and L.H. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School, No. 90-03018 and 90-03060, at *17-18 (E.D.Pa. Feb. 1, 1991). Rather than dismissing on that basis, however, the district court's order granted the motions of the defendants to dismiss each of the complaints for failure to state a claim.

The district court first held that a special custodial relationship between plaintiffs and the school defendants was established by virtue of the state's compulsory attendance laws, thus creating an affirmative constitutional duty on the part of the school defendants to protect plaintiffs from the types of acts committed by the student defendants. D.R.. L.R. and L.H., at *27; 24 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 13-1327, 13-1333, 13-1343 (Purdon 1982). The court found that the existence of the affirmative duty to act was complemented by Pennsylvania law which gives school officials in loco parentis standing to take any action necessary to prevent disciplinary infractions and educationally disruptive behavior. 24 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 13-1317 (Purdon 1982). Nevertheless, the court concluded that the amended complaints failed to allege sufficient knowledge on the part of the school defendants to charge them with the requisite reckless indifference to plaintiffs' rights to support a section 1983 claim.

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs contend that their amended complaints alleged the school defendants' knowledge of the physical, verbal and sexual abuse committed by the student defendants and a policy of laxity toward such conduct. They assert that the district court impermissibly narrowed their allegations by focusing solely on the issue of the school defendants' awareness of the sexual misconduct. Thus, as a consequence, they argue that the district court erred in granting the Rule 12(b)(6) motion, given the more expansive allegations and theories presented in their amended complaints.

Appellees respond that the district court's dismissal can be affirmed by this court without reaching the issue of the sufficiency of the factual allegations of the school defendants' knowledge of the conduct of the student defendants. They assert that, contrary to the district court's ruling, no special relationship of constitutional proportions existed between plaintiffs and the school defendants. Thus, they say that this section 1983 ...


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