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N.C. school leaders accused of ignoring abuse have immunity, court rules

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A special-education teacher in Statesville, N.C., repeatedly shoved an autistic first-grade student into a garbage can, telling him that if he “acted like trash,” he would be treated “like trash,” according to a federal lawsuit; she pushed him to the floor and covered his nose and mouth. The abuse was reported to higher-ups, the lawsuit says, but nothing was done, and the next year, she forced the child to stand all day and poured grease on his head.

Robin Johnson kept teaching and abusing students until an outside therapist made a report to police, the lawsuit in federal court said. Johnson pleaded guilty to assault; the boy’s mother subsequently sued school administrators, saying her son is still suffering psychologically from the experience.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that those officials were protected from liability because there was no substantiated claim that they acted maliciously, corruptly or outside their official duties.

“The mere allegation that such disheartening things occurred at their school does not show that the school officials intended them to happen,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. While malice “has a certain intuitive appeal here given the troubling facts alleged,” he wrote, the plaintiff did not actually make that claim or offer evidence for it in the complaint.

The legal principle of “qualified immunity” that protects police officers from civil suits has generated widespread anger in recent years, but the doctrine has survived in state legislatures and at the U.S. Supreme Court. Less high profile is the immunity enjoyed by other government actors at issue in the case filed in 2020 against leaders in the Iredell-Statesville School District of North Carolina.

North Carolina’s law is “better than most states” because only public officials, and not regular state employees, enjoy immunity, said Anya Bidwell, who leads the Project on Immunity and Accountability at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm. But, she said, “this is a perfect example of state immunity and how it’s difficult to overcome.”

Federal immunity is even broader; last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Border Patrol agent could not be sued for retaliation or excessive use of force after he was accused of shoving an innkeeper to the ground.

The plaintiffs in the North Carolina case argued unsuccessfully that malice can be inferred by the officials’ “knowledge of the abuse, failure to investigate, and reckless indifference to the abuse.”

An employee reported the alleged abuse to the principal, who told district staffers; no school employees informed police, social services, the state superintendent or the child’s mother, and the student remained in Johnson’s class for second grade.

Because his ability to communicate is limited, the boy was able to tell his mother about some of the abuse only when it had been going on for two years, according to the lawsuit. When his mother confronted school officials, she says, they defended Johnson. It wasn’t until he was in third grade, at a different school, that a therapist learned of the abuse and reported Johnson to police, according to the court record.

Even after she pleaded guilty to assault on a disabled person, she was listed online as teaching in the district, according to the plaintiffs.

There is a duty to investigate and report abuse of students under North Carolina law, and a lower court agreed with the plaintiffs that immunity does not apply because there was no discretion.

But the appellate court said the decision of how to handle that requirement is discretionary, and that even if it isn’t, whether North Carolina’s immunity law excludes mandatory duties is not clear.

“Public officials can be negligent; public officials can even be recklessly indifferent,” Sarah Saint, representing the board members, said during oral arguments in March. “That is what North Carolina public immunity is for.”

Johnson did not appeal the district court’s finding that the claims against her could proceed, and complaints that the board violated federal law protecting people with disabilities survive. But the ability to collect damages that would pay the child’s therapy bills is now limited.

“So what is the remedy when you’re going to have counseling for a long time, likely for life, because of what happened — because of what was knowingly allowed to happen to you?” his attorney, Stacey Gahagan, asked in an interview.

In a statement, the boy’s mother said the ruling “deeply saddens" her.

“Just because you choose to turn your head and look the other way, does not mean you should get away scot-free," she said.

Judge Diana Motz, in a concurring opinion, suggested that the district court dismiss the claims without prejudice so the family can file a new complaint alleging malice. Gahagan said she hopes to be able to do so. Attorneys for the school officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Motz noted that official immunity, particularly for police officers, has “faced intense criticism,” including from Supreme Court justices. But she said it was up to state legislators to address: “North Carolina has not yet chosen to reconsider its doctrine of public official immunity. Unless and until that day comes, we can only apply the immunity as the law requires.”