This fall nearly 20 million students will be attending college, according to information from the National Center for Education Statistics. While most incoming and returning college students are busy focusing on their studies, extracurriculars, or simply the next frat party, safety concerns can at times be relegated to the backseat. Students and parents alike often rely on their university or college to provide services to enhance student safety and create a safe learning environment. But how much can we really expect from schools when it comes to keeping students safe from violence? What steps are schools legally required to take in order to ensure student safety? When does a college or university owe a special duty of care to protect its students from each other?
These questions were addressed at length in a 2018 opinion coming from the California Supreme Court in Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court (Rosen), 4 Cal. 5th 607 (2018). Rosen involved a violent student-on-student assault at UCLA. In its opinion, the court recounts a harrowing tale of a student named Damon Thompson, evidently plagued by mental illness, who attacked his fellow student Katherine Rosen in a UCLA classroom while class was in session. The primary question posed to the court on review was whether UCLA owed Rosen a special duty to protect her from foreseeably violent conduct in the classroom or during curricular activities.
As much of the Supreme Court's decision in Rosen turned on the foreseeability of Thompson's conduct, in order to understand the applicability of the Court's decision, it is necessary to have a full understanding of the case history and UCLA's knowledge of Thompson's propensity for violence.
Upon transferring to UCLA in 2008, Damon Thompson began experiencing auditory hallucinations, resulting in problems with other students; namely, Thompson constantly heard other students insulting him, although he could not attribute the voices to specific students. Thompson expressed his frustration with his peers to UCLA staff and faculty at various points throughout the year: He sent his history professor an email stating that he heard other students making offensive remarks during his final examination; he emailed the dean of students a three-page letter, alleging that other students had been making unwelcome verbal sexual advances and spreading rumors about him; he complained to three different professors and a teaching assistant that students had been trying to distract him with offensive comments.
Various individuals to whom Thompson made these accusations referred Thompson to UCLA's Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS. After Thompson told his resident advisor that he kept hearing a clicking noise above his room that sounded like a gun, and believed the other residents were planning to shoot him, campus police searched his dormitory and escorted him to the emergency room for psychiatric evaluation. Thompson was diagnosed with possible schizophrenia and major depressive disorder. He agreed to take antipsychotic medication and attend outpatient treatment at CAPS.
Thompson started seeing a CAPS psychologist but refused to take his prescribed antipsychotic medication. His psychologist recommended seeing a CAPS psychiatrist, and Thompson eventually agreed. Thompson admitted to the CAPS psychiatrist that he was thinking about harming others, as he constantly heard numerous voices of people insulting him, but he could not attribute the voices to specific individuals. The CAPS psychiatrist recommended that Thompson put himself in voluntary hospitalization. Thompson refused, and withdrew from CAPS treatment.
The next school year, Thompson continued to have issues with other students in his classes. Ultimately, around the end of September, Thompson went back to CAPS and met with a psychologist and the CAPS psychiatrist who had seen him previously. Thompson again agreed to treatment, this time at the university's behavioral health clinic. It is unclear whether Thompson ever attended any sessions at the behavioral health clinic.
In early October 2009, Thompson began to identify specific students as the origin of the voices tormenting him. After one of his professors emailed UCLA's response team, the CAPS director attempted to set up an urgent meeting to address Thompson's issues. However, two days later, while Thompson was doing classwork in a chemistry laboratory he suddenly, without warning or provocation, stabbed fellow student Katherine Rosen in the chest and neck with a kitchen knife. Rosen ultimately survived, and after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity to criminal attempted murder charges, Thompson was admitted to Patton State Hospital and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Rosen subsequently sued Thompson, the Regents of the University of California, and several UCLA employees in civil court. Rosen alleged that the UCLA defendants owed her a special duty of care and were negligent by failing to warn or protect her, or to control Thompson's foreseeably violent conduct. UCLA sought summary judgment at the trial court and petitioned the Court of Appeal for a writ of mandate when they were denied summary judgment. The California Supreme Court granted review of the Court of Appeal's decision that UCLA owed no duty to protect Rosen.
General Duty to Protect
Rosen's suit for negligence against UCLA required her to prove duty, breach, causation and damages. The Court of Appeal granted summary judgment in favor of UCLA because it determined that Rosen could not establish that UCLA owed her a duty. After careful and thorough analysis, the California Supreme Court, however, found that UCLA did owe Rosen a duty, and that schools in general may owe their students a heightened duty of care depending on the circumstances.
In general, although each person has a duty to act with reasonable care under the circumstances, "one owes no duty to control the conduct of another, nor to warn those endangered by such conduct," Davidson v. City of Westminster, 32 Cal. 3d 197, 203 (1982). Going one step further, "a person who has not created a peril is not liable in tort merely for failure to take affirmative action to assist or protect another unless there is some relationship between them which gives rise to a duty to act." Williams v. State of California, 34 Cal. 3d 18, 23 (1983). It is clear from longstanding California case law that there is no general duty to protect amongst strangers.
Although there is no general duty to protect or warn, such a duty may be imposed based on a defendant's relationship with "either the person whose conduct needs to be controlled or [with] ... the foreseeable victim of that conduct." Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, Cal. 3d 425, 435 (1976). Rosen alleged that UCLA had both a duty to control its student Thompson, and a separate duty to protect her, as its student, from Thompson. In its analysis, the Supreme Court discusses situations in which there does exist a duty to either control or protect. It references the parent-child relationship as an example of a special relationship giving rise to a duty to control. Conversely, it sets forth common carriers and passengers, or innkeepers and guests as classic examples of a special duty to protect. The court ultimately refrained from discussing whether UCLA had a special duty to control its students, since they found that UCLA did have a special duty to protect its students.
To support their finding, the court first looks to whether a special relationship exists between college students and their college. The court quotes the Restatement Third of Torts, which includes "a school with its students" as a relationship giving rise to a special duty to protect. Rest.3d Torts, Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm, Section 40, subd. (b). While the court recognizes that college or university students are not exempt from this rule simply by virtue of (generally) being adults, it observes that there is a substantial difference in the duty to protect elementary school students compared to college students.
In order to find that UCLA had a special duty to protect Rosen, the court analyzed whether a special relationship exists between college students and their school. The court restates the traditional features of a "special" relationship, including aspects of dependency or reliance, and a party's superior control over the means of protection (Baldwin v. Zoradi, 123 Cal. App. 3d 275, 283 (1981); Giraldo v. Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, 168 Cal. App. 4th 231, 245-46 (2008)). While control over an individual's means of protection is an important factor in establishing a special relationship, it is not the exclusive factor. As stated by the court in Rosen, "Special relationships [...] have defined boundaries. They create a duty of care owed to a limited community, not the public at large." Id. at 426.
History of Special Duties Owed to College Students
Next, the Supreme Court turned to the specific question of a college's duty to protect its students. It recognized that over the years there has been significant cultural shifts in the legal significance of the college-student relationship.
Prior to the 1960s, colleges were often viewed as parental stand-ins. Although that role may have given colleges some obligation to protect students, colleges were often afforded parental immunity, at least with respect to disciplining or regulating student conduct. This view shifted in the 70s and 80s, when courts began to treat colleges more like businesses rather than parental stand-ins. As stated by the Rosen court, in the 70s and 80s "courts typically resisted finding a broader [university] duty based on a special relationship with students." Id. at 426.
California appellate decisions followed this trend for years. For example, in Baldwin, a student sued the California State University system after she was injured in a drunken, highway drag racing contest. The court in Baldwin concluded that the university lacked sufficient control over student behavior to justify imposing a duty to prevent on-campus drinking.
California courts continued to follow this trend into the 90s; in Crow v. State of California, 222 Cal. App. 3d 192 (1990), another CSU student sued the university after a fellow student assaulted him at a dormitory keg party. The Court of Appeal in Crow, distinguishing college students from high school students, held that because the plaintiff was an adult college student, voluntarily participating in drinking beer at a dormitory, the university owed him no duty to protect.
Even where the harm is more serious, California courts have often been reluctant to find that a university or college has a duty to protect its students where alcohol is involved. In Tanja H. v. Regents of University of California, 228 Cal. App. 3d 434 (1991), a University of California student was raped by fellow students after a dormitory party. The court again declined to impose a duty on the school, because a duty to prevent alcohol-related crimes would require colleges to "impose onerous conditions on the freedom and privacy of resident students." Id. at 438.
The court found that colleges provide a discrete community for their students, and as such students are dependent on their college communities to provide structure, guidance and a safe learning environment. It then found that colleges also have superior control over the ability to protect students by way of their rules and restrictions, both in the classroom and across campus.
In contrast, when alcohol is not involved, courts have generally been more willing to establish limited duties upon colleges. However, these duties have often been justified under other doctrines, such as the business-invitee (Peterson v. San Francisco Community College Dist., 36 Cal. 3d 799 (1984)) or a duty not to increase inherent risks (Avila v. Citrus Community College Dist., 38 Cal. 4th 148 (2006)). The court acknowledges that it has never before ruled on a situation where a college student was injured on campus, during a classroom session.
Court Finds Limited Duty to Protect
The Rosen court recognizes that while comparisons can be made to other duties to protect, "the college environment is unlike any other." Id. at 429. While a college does provide services for a fee, it is more than a business; while residential colleges provide living spaces, they are more than landlords. Colleges are essentially an entire microcosm of culture, athletics and social events -- a discrete community. "Students are dependent on their college community to provide structure, guidance and a safe learning environment." Id. at 429.
Conversely, colleges have superior control over the environment and their ability to protect their students; colleges are the ones who can impose rules and restrictions, employ security and counselors, and discipline students. Thus, the Rosen court held that a college-student relationship "fits within the paradigm of a special relationship." Id. at 429.
These factors resulted in the court concluding that a special relationship does exist between colleges and their students, but that the relationship is limited. A college's special relationship "extends to activities that are tied to the school's curriculum but not to student behavior over which the university has no significant degree of control." Id. at 431.
Ultimately, the Rosen court did not take an all-encompassing view of whether a special duty exists between colleges and their students. The court specifically emphasized that a duty of care is not the equivalent of liability, nor should their holding be used to create an impossible requirement that colleges prevent all violence on their campuses. Rather, the court held only that colleges have a duty to act with reasonable care when aware of a foreseeable threat of violence in a curricular setting. However, despite the narrow construction, the court did open the door to the idea that, under certain circumstances, such a special duty of care may be found to exist.