Do you have a “special relationship” with your students?

I expect that if we asked teachers, many of them would say that they do have a “special relationship” with their students.  This is one of the primary payoffs for a career in education.  That student who takes the time to say thanks…that student who sends you a card….that student who reaches out years later to let you know that you made a difference. 

But in legal parlance, “special relationship” has a very different meaning.  The courts have held that the government has a “special relationship” when it “takes a person into its custody and holds him there against his will.”  So the City of Minneapolis had a “special relationship” with George Floyd.

In legal terminology, a “special relationship” has nothing to do with expressions of affection or gratitude.  It’s about the state using its power to deprive a person of freedom.  When the relationship is marked by that kind of disparity in power, the one with the power takes on the responsibility to protect the less powerful party from harm caused by third parties.  This is why law enforcement agencies can be held legally responsible when a prisoner is assaulted by another prisoner. The state has taken custody; this creates a “special relationship” and this relationship creates a duty to protect.

How does this play in our public schools?  The law requires the students to be there. There is disparity in power and a limitation in freedom for the student. But the 5th Circuit has said over and over and over that none of that is sufficient to create a “special relationship.”  Therefore, the public school does not have legal liability when one student intentionally assaults another.  That fact alone does not create liability for the school.  To hold the school liable, there would have to be proof that the school itself caused harm. 

This came up most recently when the a student identified as Son Doe, son of John and Jane Doe, in Bridge City ISD alleged that he was assaulted by another student in the school locker room. The Does sued the district. The court dismissed the case:

However, we have held explicitly that “a public school does not have a special relationship with a student that would require the school to protect the student from harm at the hands of a private actor.”  Therefore, the school did not have a constitutional duty to protect Son Doe.

It’s an “unpublished” opinion issued by the 5th Circuit on October 20, 2021.  I’m pleased to let you know that Blake Henshaw and Morgan Beam from our firm’s Houston office represented BCISD on this one.


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