Private School Alert: Appeals Court weighs in on scope of 51A reporting obligation for student-on-student bullying
April 19, 2016
All schools reflexively know their legal obligation as mandated reporters of suspected abuse or neglect of students. Despite this mantra, schools may struggle with the intersection of 51A mandated reporting and student anti-bullying laws. The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently provided some guidance in the unpublished opinion of Rosseel v. Fay School.
According to the facts recounted by the Court, a school employee filed a 51A report for suspected abuse of a student who was the target of alleged bullying by another student and student’s sibling. The employee was later terminated from employment. The employee sued claiming that the school violated the law which bars any employer from retaliating against any employee who in good faith files a report of suspected abuse or neglect under 51A.
The Appeals Court affirmed the dismissal of the retaliation claim. The Court ruled that a report of bullying involving students was not protected activity necessary to trigger the anti-retaliation provision. The Court determined that the alleged perpetrators of the bullying conduct were not caretakers “entrusted with the responsibility for the child’s health or welfare” and, therefore, the alleged conduct was not within the mandatory reporting requirements of 51A. The Court in a footnote also rejected as meritless the employee’s argument that the school’s conduct regarding the bullying incidents constituted reportable neglect under the regulations.
The decision teaches that student-on-student conduct to include bullying does not automatically constitute abuse or neglect and does not automatically trigger mandated reporting by a school. As the Court recites, the key inquiry is whether there exists a reasonable basis to believe that a child under the age of 18 years old has been subject to abuse or neglect by a caretaker. While mandated reporting remains a central legal duty and obligation of every educator, schools must continue to assess carefully all facts and circumstances surrounding incidents to determine whether reporting is required. Strong internal policies and procedures, a prompt response, and communication are critical. Notably, even if an incident of alleged bullying may not trigger a mandatory reporting obligation under 51A, a school nonetheless has a duty to investigate and, if needed, to take remedial action to include possible reporting to law authorities.
For more information, please contact Peter F. Carr, II. He represents independent private schools on legal matters including discipline, internal investigations, employment issues, and human resources counseling, and writes and speaks regularly on private school-related topics.