Educational Malpractice

Beginning in the 1970s, parents sought to render school boards, teachers, and other educational staff members liable for the inability of their children to perform well in school, charging a variety of school officials with educational malpractice in disputes over pedagogical methods and student outcomes. Plaintiffs have tried unsuccessfully to rely on the concept of malpractice, a term used to refer to negligence by professionals, such as doctors and lawyers who fail to meet their duties to clients and cause them harm.

To date, all efforts to establish educational malpractice as a tort in regular educational settings have been fruitless insofar as it is “a tort theory beloved of commentators, but not of courts” (Ross v. Creighton University, 1990, p. 1327). Among the reasons why the purported tort of educational malpractice has failed in disputes arising in the context of regular educational settings is that teachers, unlike professionals who ordinarily face changes of malpractice, do not typically work in one-to-one relationships with students, have virtually no discretion in selecting which students they teach and serve, and have little ability to set their own rules of professional conduct.

Moreover, plaintiffs in regular education have been unable to establish that school officials committed malpractice because almost as a matter of public policy, when applying the rules of negligence, practical issues arise, such as the duty that students and parents share to ensure that learning occurs, coupled with questions of apportioning liability for the alleged failings of educators. If, for example, secondary school students in regular education classes are unable to read at grade level, it is unclear how much they, their parents, and teachers at a variety of grade levels should share the fault.

At the same time, since students have explicit statutory rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, some courts (M. C. on Behalf of J. C. v. Central Regional School District, 1996a, 1996b), but not all (Suriano v. Hyde Park Central School District, 1994), have permitted claims filed on their behalf to proceed, even though jurists refused to identify such cases as educational malpractice. Rather, when dealing with disputes that arise in the context of special education, courts are apparently more willing to grant plaintiffs some relief because they are safeguarding well-established statutory rights. In disagreements over special education, courts have granted prevailing plaintiffs relief in the form of compensatory services, such as extended day- or year-long programming to compensate for the denial of services and attorney fees to cover the costs associated with filing suit to protect their rights.

In perhaps the best-known early case involving educational malpractice, parents in California unsuccessfully claimed that school officials improperly allowed their son, who could read only at the eighthgrade level, to graduate from high school (Peter W. v. San Francisco Unified School District, 1976). The plaintiffs sought relief because even though the student graduated after attending school for 12 years, he was qualified to work only at jobs requiring little or no ability to read or write. An appellate court, in rejecting the suit, engaged in a lengthy review of the duty-of-care concept in the law of negligence. The court reasoned that the legal claim could not proceed since there was no workable rule of care against which to measure the alleged misconduct of school officials, no injury within the meaning of the law of negligence, and no perceptible connection between the conduct of teachers and other staff in relation to the injuries that the student alleged had incurred. In other words, the court found that insofar as the student’s claims were too amorphous, they could not proceed under a theory of negligence. The court also dismissed a charge of intentional misrepresentation because even though the student and his parents had the opportunity to do so, they were unable to provide facts demonstrating that they had relied on the alleged misrepresentations that the educators made.

Along with the reasons cited above, other courts have recognized the difficulties of measuring damages, as well as the public policy considerations: Acceptance of such cases would, in effect, have put them in the position of being responsible for supervising the day-to-day educational management activities in public schools, a task for which they recognize that they are ill-suited (Hunter v. Board of Education of Montgomery County, 1982; Simon v. Celebration Co., 2004). In so ruling, courts agree that since aggrieved parents can seek redress through the administrative procedures made available by local school boards and state-level educational agencies, they are not left without recourse when they disagree with the decisions that school officials make that impact on the education of their children. Of course, as witnessed by the voluminous litigation on torts, especially negligence, if the specific acts of school employees directly or intentionally cause injuries to students, they as well as their school boards may face liability for educational malpractice. Even so, it remains to be seen whether claims for educational malpractice will, or should, be permitted to proceed to litigation on their merits.

Charles J. Russo

See also Negligence

Legal Citations

  • Hunter v. Board of Education of Montgomery County, 439 A.2d 582 (Md. 1982). 
  • M. C. on Behalf of J. C. v. Central Regional School District, 81 F.3d 389 (3d Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 866 (1996). 
  • Peter W. v. San Francisco Unified School District, 131 Cal.Rptr. 854 (Cal. Ct. App. 1976). 
  • Ross v. Creighton University, 740 F. Supp. 1319 (N.D. Ill. 1990). 
  • Simon v. Celebration Co., 883 So. 2d 826 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2004). 
  • Suriano v. Hyde Park Central School District, 611 N.Y.S.2d 20 (N.Y. App. Div.1994).