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School officials given qualified immunity in bus driver abuse case

School officials given qualified immunity in bus driver abuse case

Two school district officials who were unaware of a bus driver’s sexual  abuse of children are entitled to qualified immunity in litigation filed by parents, says a federal appeals court, in partially overturning a lower court’s ruling.

Gary Shafer, a bus driver with the Olympia, Washington, school district, sexually abused dozens of students, according to Wednesday’s ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in W.H. individually; et al., v. Olympia School District a public corporation et al.

According to the complaint, Mr. Shafer drove and rode along with pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and special needs children.

“There were numerous warning signs that the District failed to investigate or respond to when Shafer was a bus driver,” according to the ruling by the U.S. District Court in Tacoma in the case.

Despite parent complaints, “there was never any investigation or follow up by the District,” according to the lower court ruling.

After complaints were made to the county sheriff’s office, Mr. Shafer surrendered himself to police and confessed to molesting multiple children.

Parents of two of the abused girls filed suit against four school district officials. In an August 2017 ruling, the district court ruled none of the officials were entitled to qualified immunity.

In its ruling Wednesday, a unanimous three-judge 9th Circuit panel upheld the ruling on two of the officials but overturned the ruling against the other two. 

“The constitutional right of a child to be free from sexual abuse was clearly established prior to Shafer’s employment with the District,” said the ruling.

“However, none of the individual defendants participated in the abuse of P.H. or S.A., so the question is whether they can be liable in their supervisory authority.”

“Supervisory liability stems from ‘culpable action or inaction in the training, supervisor or control of subordinates, acquiescence in the constitutional deprivations of which the complaint is made, or for conduct that showed a reckless or callous indifference to the rights of others,’” said the ruling, in quoting an earlier case.

The ruling said in the case of the district’s former transportation director, Frederick Stanley, and its former transportation coordinator, Barbara Greer, “a jury could reasonably conclude that their failure to investigate, supervise, or intervene indicated ‘acquiescence or culpable indifference’ that would trigger liability,” said the ruling, in quoting an earlier case, and holding the district court had correctly held they are not entitled to qualified immunity.

However, in the case of school superintendent William Lahmann and assistant superintendent Jennifer Priddy, “a different conclusion is warranted,” said the ruling.

“Lacking any knowledge, either real or constructive of Shafer’s misconduct until after his arrest, which post-dates the abuse, Lahmann and Priddy could not have acquiesced or been recklessly indifferent to his abuse,” said the appeals panel in reversing the court’s rulings on those individuals. The case was remanded for further proceedings.






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