To what extent do Arizona schools have a duty to protect students from off-campus harm?

By Stefan Oakley.

The Arizona Supreme Court, in Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix et al., ruled that schools do not typically owe a duty of care to students who experience violence and/or injury after school. Rather, the duty a school owes to its students is a narrow one, strongly grounded in time and place, rather than based on foreseeability of harm occurring. The Court concluded the “key consideration is whether a known and tangible risk of harm arose that endangered the student while under the school’s custody and control.” Therefore, students who encounter harm off school grounds are  likely out of the “custody and control” of the school.

 The facts that gave rise to Dinsmoor

Dinsmoor involved the fatal shooting of a student, Ana, by another student, Michael, at a friend’s house after school. Ana’s mother, Diannah Dinsmoor, brought a negligence suit against Ana’s school district, alleging that based on what the school knew about Ana and Michael, they had a duty to protect her from the shooting.

Michael allegedly texted Ana that he planned to harm one of Ana’s friends, Raven. As such, the school took precautionary measures for Raven’s safety as to Michael, but no measures for Ana’s safety. Furthermore, Ana never said she felt threatened by Michael, and school officials determined the text messages were not threatening against Ana. The vice principal planned to speak with Michael the next day, but Michael ended up being absent. When Ana decided to visit Michael after school that day, the vice principal told her to “make good choices,” and a school safety officer advised her it was “not a good idea,” but ultimately did not stop her. Ana later met Michael at a friend’s house. Subsequently, Michael shot and killed Ana before killing himself.

The Court held the school did not have a duty to Ana under the facts described. The Court reasoned that because the threats were against Raven instead of Ana, and because Ana did not feel threatened by Michael, there was no tangible risk of harm to Ana before she left school to visit him. In short, “the school-student relationship creates a duty to protect students from unreasonable risks of harm arising within the confines of the relationship,” but here Ana was beyond the school’s custody and control when the tangible risk of harm arose.

How did existing Arizona law get us to this point?

Ana’s mother argued the duty “exists regardless of where and when the student suffers injury if the school learned of an unreasonable risk of harm to the student while the school exercised custody and control over her.” The school argued its duty to students is limited to students endangered while attending school on-campus during school hours or participating in after-hour school-sponsored activities. Thus, both parties’ approaches differed in scope of time and place.

The Court concluded that the correct definition fell somewhere between both parties’ arguments. The Court cited an Arizona Court of Appeals decision, Monroe v. Basis Schools, Inc., where the court found a school had no duty to a student who was struck by a truck while biking home from school. In Monroe, the court reasoned that the school’s duty to a student is formed from the special relationship between a school and a student, such that “the duty of care is bounded by geography and time, encompassing risks such as those that occur while the student is at school or otherwise under the school’s control.”

The Court ultimately rejected Ana’s mother’s argument that the previous altercations between Ana and Michael, and Michael’s violent behavior towards Raven, established a duty of care because Arizona tort law does not read foreseeability into the duty analysis.

Looking forward:

Dinsmoor gives schools, students, and parents some idea of what duty a school owes to its students to protect them from off-campus harm. Once a student steps away from school supervision, the duty owed to that student becomes a lot more limited. But when they are under the custody and control of the school, students are deprived of parental/guardian protections, and thus “the school has an affirmative duty to protect them from such risks until they are safely released from the school’s custody and control.”

Because such duty is defined by the common law, there are likely to be situations that fall into grey areas. Thus, many cases are likely to hinge on what “custody and control” actually means in a practical sense. Indeed, the Court identified examples of cases in its opinion that suggest the malleability of the term, including:

Further, the Court provided its own hypothetical situation: “[I]f a threat of harm exists for students leaving school for the day—an active shooter in the neighborhood or a tornado, for example—that risk arises within the school-student relationship, thereby imposing a duty on the school to protect students.”

Arizona law does not go as far to say that once a child steps foot off the school campus the school is absolved of all liability. One must always ask “whether a known and tangible risk of harm arose that endangered the student while under the school’s custody and control.” While the common-law standard guarantees a degree of uncertainty, the corresponding benefit is in its flexibility to adapt to unforeseen circumstances not yet imagined.

"Forgotten Classroom" by ne* is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0