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A Tuscaloosa special education teacher is not liable for the alleged sexual assault of a student that occurred on her watch, the Alabama State Supreme Court determined Friday.
The lawsuit, filed in 2019 by a former student, charged that Amy Williamson, a special education teacher, failed to follow rules and regulations that resulted in the sexual assault of the plaintiff in 2015. In 2020, a trial court determined Williamson was not acting out of negligence but said she acted beyond her authority by leaving two special education students alone in a van during an outing, where a male student allegedly assaulted the plaintiff.
Williamson petitioned the denial of a motion for summary judgment to the Alabama Supreme Court. Seven of the eight Alabama Supreme Court justices granted immunity to Williamson on Friday, ruling that the plaintiff had provided no evidence that the teacher had violated school policy and that she had not acted beyond her authority.
Williamson denied allegations of negligence and reckless conduct and pleaded state and federal immunity – a common response from school employees who are targets of lawsuits. In Alabama, teachers are granted immunity, meaning they can’t be sued, as long as they are acting within their authority and aren’t violating any school rules.
The plaintiff graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2012 and was a special education student while enrolled in the Tuscaloosa County School System. She was accepted into the CrossingPoints program after graduation, which partners with the University of Alabama, the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education and the Tuscaloosa County Board of Education to serve college-aged students with mental disabilities.
According to the complaint, Williamson and CrossingPoints paraeducator Amy Burnett left campus in a UA-owned van to take four students to submit job applications at the local Lowe’s and other area businesses. The plaintiff waited in the parked van with a male student as their peers went inside with Williamson and Burnett, the complaint stated.
Burnett returned to the van after five minutes and saw that the plaintiff’s face was red. The student, who has Down Syndrome, told Burnett that she had been sexually assaulted by the male student in the van, who had an intellectual disability and a history of disciplinary referrals, according to the complaint. The complaint stated that the male student “touched her on her breast and between her legs.”
The teachers returned to campus to follow up on the allegations and notified the plaintiff’s mother, who took her to the hospital. Williamson then notified Tuscaloosa County’s special education coordinator, according to the lawsuit.
Following the alleged incident, the plaintiff completed the program but experienced “emotional distress, including nightmares, the need for counseling, and a feeling of anxiety upon seeing a van that resembles a [CrossingPoints program] van,” according to an opinion from District Judge Scott Coogler. The alleged assailant was suspended from the program and was placed on homebound services for the remainder of the year.
Because the CrossingPoints Program and participating school districts didn’t have a policy that spelled out that employees can’t leave students on the bus or a van, Williamson successfully argued that she wasn’t violating any school rules.
Efforts to reach the plaintiff’s attorney have been unsuccessful, and it’s unclear whether she will try to appeal again. But it’s not uncommon for these kinds of cases to end in favor of educators, experts say — especially on the state level.
“It’s a pattern that they are routinely granted immunity, and that the state Supreme Court grants immunity,” said Eric Artrip, a class-action lawsuit attorney in Huntsville. “In every single school case that we do, we typically will always face down a motion to dismiss based on immunity.”
Artrip represents a plaintiff in a Jane Doe case in Hoover, which was filed in 2019 in federal court and is still active.
The Hoover lawsuit alleges that a group of first-grade girls sexually assaulted a female first-grade classmate, who is called Jane Doe, on the playground and in the restroom of an elementary school in the Birmingham suburb during the 2017-18 school year.
The plaintiff sued several Hoover City Schools employees and board members on the grounds that their “deliberate indifference created a dangerous environment and barred Plaintiff’s access to a safe learning environment,” according to the complaint.
Hoover contended that the lawsuit “amounts to a claim of simple negligence,” making it unactionable against school employees who are protected by sovereign immunity.
The judge denied the school district’s motions to dismiss the case. It’s now in the discovery phase.