Civil Assault and Battery

Assault and battery are closely related intentional torts that are distinguished from one another by the presence or absence of physical contact. An assault occurs when an individual attempts to make an offensive bodily contact with another individual but fails to do so. During that attempt, there is an imminent fear of contact. In most cases, an assault includes not only threatening words but also an offer of physical violence. In contrast, battery requires an actual offensive bodily contact.
The following example illustrates the difference between assault and battery. If a student threatened to strike another student with a club, and the student being threatened was fearful that the threatening student would strike him, it may be considered assault. If on the other hand, the student with the club physically struck the other student, it may be considered battery. Assault can be distinguished from battery with the consideration that assault is more of a mental violation than a physical one.
Assault and battery are intentional torts that require deliberate acts. The most common types of intentional torts include assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation, which includes libel (written) and slander (spoken). It is important to note that a batterer does not need to intend to hurt someone. Rather, a batterer must simply intend to touch another. For example, a student who intended to throw a pencil in the classroom and hit someone could be liable for battery. It would not matter that the student did not intend to hurt someone; rather, all that matters is that the student intended to throw the pencil. Assault and battery may also be considered criminal wrongs depending on state criminal statutes.
It is not surprising that school boards are increasingly concerned about legal liability resulting from assault and battery. There have been cases of teachers being accused of assault and/or battery in situations involving sexual misconduct with students. In these instances, the plaintiffs need to demonstrate that the school officials were aware of the sexual misconduct and could have done something but chose not to intervene.
School officials should also be aware that students could allege battery if they are touched while being disciplined. However, the courts provide a great deal of leeway for teachers when they are disciplining students. On this same note, courts have generally agreed that teachers who engage in corporal punishment are not liable for battery unless they inflict excessive force on students and they act with malice.
An illustration comes from a recent case from Louisiana (Boone v. Wayne Reese, 2004), in which a mother filed suit on behalf of her child alleging assault and battery when a teacher pushed her son into a wall. A trial court decided both that the teacher did not act with malice and that the teacher’s physical contact was needed to maintain order in the classroom. An appellate court affirmed on the basis that the contact with the student did not meet the definition of battery. Conversely, in a case from Pennsylvania (Vicky M. v. Northeastern Education Intermediate Unit 19, 2007), a federal trial court denied a school board’s motion to dismiss a battery claim against a teacher who struck a special education student’s arms and legs. Further, in a case from Arkansas (Daniels v. Lutz, 2005), a student and his mother sued a teacher and the school board for various intentional torts after the educator allegedly hit the child in the eye with a manila folder. In addition, the student claimed that the teacher grabbed him by the shirt and held his neck to prevent him from leaving the classroom. Insofar as the court rejected the board’s argument that the teacher was immune from liability for battery, it permitted the case to proceed to trial.
School officials should also be aware of the potential for student-to-student assault and battery cases in schools. In a case from New York State (Taylor v. Dunkirk City School District, 2004), a school board sought further review of the denial of its motion for summary judgment in a negligent supervision claim, where one student assaulted another after class had ended. Reversing in favor of the board, an appellate court maintained that the board could not be liable because school officials lacked specific knowledge or notice concerning the dangerous conduct on the part of the student who caused the plaintiff’s injury.
Indeed, the outcomes of assault and battery cases vary across states. Even so, these cases do demonstrate that school officials must take action if they are aware of the potential for assault and/or battery of students, whether by teachers or peers.
Suzanne E. Eckes

See also Antiharassment Policies
Further Readings
Evans, B., & Eckes, S. (2006). Tort law and public schools. In C. J. Russo (Ed.), The yearbook of education law: 2006. (pp.142–165). Dayton, OH: Education Law Association.
Legal Citations
Boone v. Wayne Reese, 889 So. 2d 435 (La. Ct. App. 2004).
Daniels v. Lutz, 407 F. Supp. 2d 1038 (E.D. Ark. 2005).
Taylor v. Dunkirk City School District, 785 N.Y.S.2d 623 (N.Y. App. Div. 2004).
Vicky M. v. Northeastern Education Intermediate Unit 19, 486 F. Supp. 2d 437 (M.D. Pa. 2007).