Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Students And Parents Can Be Liable For Harmful Lies About School Employees

By Michelle Ball, California Education Attorney for Students since 1995

Have you ever been lied about and those lies hurt you in some way (e.g. lost friends, lost job, expelled)?  Negative statements about ourselves, particularly falsehoods, make us hopping mad.  Can minors who spread false statements be liable for their statements?  Yes.

This week (third week of November 2013), a Santa Clara County jury reportedly found several young girls (10 and 11 years old at the time of the incident(s)), along with their parents, guilty of defamation for lies they told about a private school teacher, John Fischler, alleging he molested them and peeked in their bathroom. One girl will have to pay punitive damages as she spread the lies with malice aforethought (basically intention to harm).  The other students and parents reportedly got off with a mere $362,653 bill to the teacher, who had to defend against the allegations and had his workplace poisoned against him.

This is quite a story, and the attorney for the girls mentioned that a "chilling effect" might occur from this verdict, which could prevent true reports from being lodged, for fear of lawsuit.  It is true: some people may not come forward due to fear.  However, factual statements are protected. 

Lying in the school setting does happen.  For example, I have seen young men who were falsely accused of wrongs by ex-girlfriends, or scorned lovers (and their friends).  The false communications caused recommendations for expulsion for sexual harassment and battery.  

We all remember the false accusations against Duke Lacrosse team members in 2006, where the men were falsely accused of rape.  Ultimately, the men were cleared, but not without over a year of struggle and infamy (negative) which will never go away.  The lies in that case led to the Lacrosse coach being forced to resign, and ultimately the disbarment of the District Attorney for his role in the matter. 

It is hard to know when a student is telling the truth or not, but having reliable statements is extremely important in many contexts.  In expulsions and/or student discipline matters, student statements are taken as evidence of wrongdoing, can lead to searches, a bad impression about the student and unfair discipline.  In expulsion hearings, student statements are allowed in as evidence, even hearsay statements (e.g. he said she said with no direct knowledge).  Often witnesses do not testify at an expulsion hearing, while their written statements may be accepted as evidence.  This is problematic for any student accused and the attorneys who defend them.

Student statements can also get teachers or school staff in trouble via the uniform complaint or other complaint process.  A student may lodge a complaint against staff members for alleged wrongs, which are to be investigated by the school and/or district and may make it up to the school board level.  If the statements are false, only trouble can follow.

Some good information about defamation (harmful false statements) and its subcategories of  libel (written statements) and slander (verbal statements) can be found here.  

Parents and students need to understand that any and all complaints or statements to schools should be factual.  It is risky to do otherwise.  

Best,
Michelle Ball
Education Law Attorney 
LAW OFFICE OF MICHELLE BALL 
717 K Street, Suite 228
Sacramento, CA 95814 
Phone: 916-444-9064 Fax: 916-444-1209
Email: help@edlaw4students.com

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Please see my disclaimer on the bottom of my blog page. This is legal information, not legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is formed by this posting, etc. etc.!  This blog may not be reproduced without permission from the author and proper attribution of authorship.



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