• Recent Ohio Supreme Court Decision Heightens Awareness of Reporting Abuse
  • June 30, 2004
  • Law Firm: Squire, Sanders & Dempsey L.L.P. - Cleveland Office
  • In Yates v. Mansfield Board of Education, the Ohio Supreme Court may have afforded students and their parents a mechanism to impose liability on a school board for failing to report suspected sexual abuse. The Court clarified its prior decision in Brodie v. Summit County Children Services Board, which had been interpreted as holding that schools were obliged to report suspected abuse only to protect the affected student, but not to protect other students. The Court sharply denounced appellate decisions that followed this interpretation of Brodie and specifically held that school boards and school officials may now be liable for failing to report a teacher's suspected sexual abuse where the same school employee later engages in abusive activity directed toward a different student.

    During the 1996-1997 school year, ninth-grade student "Amanda" informed Mansfield Senior High School officials that Donald Coots, a coach and teacher at the school, had inappropriate sexual contact with her on three separate occasions. The high school principal investigated and concluded that Amanda was lying. As a result, no action was taken against Coots, and the alleged sexual abuse was not reported to the police or children's services. Three years later, Coots engaged in sexual activity with another ninth-grade student, "Ashley." Both Coots and Ashley admitted to the incident; Coots was convicted of sexual battery.

    Ashley and her parents brought suit against the Mansfield Board for failing to report Coots' alleged sexual abuse in 1996-1997. The Board argued that the Ohio Revised Code Section 2151.421 (which imposes a duty to report known or suspected abuse on school teachers, officials and authorities) creates a duty on the part of the school only to protect the victim of the alleged abuse, not other members, present or future, of the student body.

    The Court flatly rejected this argument, stating that, under the Board's reasoning, "liability astoundingly pivots on whether the offending teacher is considerate enough of the school's reporting position to avoid molesting the same child twice." In theory, the Board's argument would have permitted the school to "retain the services of a teacher who sexually abuses one minor student after another ad infinitum," without reporting its knowledge of the abuse and without incurring liability, "so long as the abusing teacher happens not to abuse the same child more than once."

    According to the Court, school teachers, officials and authorities have an express duty to protect all children in their care and control, not just those children who have been the victims of abuse. Therefore, when school officials suspect or know that a student has been sexually abused by a teacher, they should realize that all of their students are in danger and take immediate action.

    Districts should remember that the duty to report attaches only when the facts "reasonably indicate abuse or neglect of the child." Note, as well, that the same statute offers immunity from civil or criminal liability to the reporting person or persons, provided that those making the reports are acting in "good faith."

    Regardless of the possibility of monetary liability for failing to make reports of suspected abuse or neglect, the Yates decision should heighten the awareness of school officials about the duty to report suspected abuse or neglect and, perhaps, increase the frequency of such reporting.