The Second District Illinois Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion in a case involving a school district’s alleged response to student-on-student bullying. The court in Malinski v. Grayslake Community High School District 127 dismissed the lawsuit against the school district, finding that school officials’ responses to complaints of bullying by a student were discretionary policy decisions for which the school district was immune.
In Malinski, a high school student alleged that school officials repeatedly turned a blind eye to physical and verbal abuse and bullying that he suffered during school hours and on school property. The student alleged that the school district breached a “duty to provide a safe environment” by willfully, wantonly, and with reckless disregard for his safety ignoring the warnings of bullying and allowing the abuse to continue. The school district moved to dismiss the lawsuit based on the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, which immunizes discretionary policy decisions of school officials from liability. The student responded that the school district’s duty to carry out the bullying policy it had implemented under the Illinois School Code was a ministerial act not protected by immunity.
Relying on prior Illinois bullying cases discussing the Tort Immunity Act, the court held that on the facts alleged, the school district’s decision was a discretionary policy decision immune from liability. The court first made clear that the mere fact that the School Code requires school districts to implement a bullying policy does not necessarily mean that the carrying out of that policy is a ministerial act. Rather, the policy can leave significant discretion to school officials on issues such as whether bullying has occurred, what consequences will result, and appropriate remedial actions. The court then held that because the plaintiff had failed to attach a copy of the bullying policy at issue, it could not determine whether the particular policy at issue in the case required a specific response to the bullying that was alleged, thus potentially making the actions in carrying out the policy ministerial.
The court’s decision does not set forth any new law on this issue, but is an important reminder that allowing flexibility to school officials in bullying policies may provide certain protections to the school district in the face of a state law bullying claim. Notably, the case did not address other types of liability that school districts may face when addressing bullying complaints, such as liability under federal laws and agency regulations. School officials should thus continue to reasonably address and respond to all allegations of bullying that are received.