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In a decision that experts say could have nationwide significance, the California Supreme Court has ruled that public colleges and universities have a duty to protect their students from potential violence in “school-sponsored activities.”

This overturns a lower court decision and allows a former University of California, Los Angeles, student to proceed with her lawsuit against the institution, stemming from when she was attacked in a classroom more than eight years ago.

Katherine Rosen, who was 20 years old at the time of the 2009 assault and in her junior year at UCLA, was working in her chemistry class and had bent over to put some items in her desk drawer. Without provocation, another student, Damon Thompson, came up behind her and stabbed her in the chest and neck with a kitchen knife.

Rosen survived, despite life-threatening injuries. Thompson was charged and found not guilty by reason by insanity. The institution's Counseling and Psychological Services had treated Thompson off and on; he had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and possibly schizophrenia and reported hearing insults and voices in his dormitory and classrooms. The lawsuit alleges the university knew of his aggressive tendencies and should have warned and guarded Rosen.

UCLA maintained it could not have been expected to know what Thompson would do that day. It argued in court that this ruling could dissuade colleges from offering mental health services because they would be more likely to expel students who might pose a threat rather than try to help them.

Spokesman Ricardo Vazquez provided a statement for the institution.

“We sympathize with the trauma that Ms. Rosen and her family have endured. We are disappointed in the California Supreme Court’s decision, and we are also concerned about the decision’s potential impact on higher education in California and beyond. Student safety remains a top priority for UCLA. The university is committed to providing an environment that is conducive to learning and that provides appropriate resources to support our students in need.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling is the first nationwide to clarify that a “special relationship” exists between a college and its students, meaning that institutions must take steps to ensure students are protected. A similar dynamic exists between prisoners and jailers, and a bus driver and passengers, for instance -- one party has more control, and thus more responsibility.

“The college-student relationship thus fits within the paradigm of a special relationship,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote on the court’s behalf. “Students are comparatively vulnerable and dependent on their colleges for a safe environment. Colleges have a superior ability to provide that safety with respect to activities they sponsor or facilities they control.”

An institution’s obligation only extends so far, though, the court notes. Corrigan wrote that colleges can’t regulate student behavior off campus or in social activities unrelated to their education, and so could not provide the same level of care in those settings.

The third edition of the work widely relied on to interpret tort cases, The Restatement of Torts, explicitly states that a special relationship exists between “schools and students,” said Brett Sokolow, a lawyer who is president and chief executive of the NCHERM Group, a risk-management consultant for colleges. This definition does not exclude colleges.

In 2015, a California appeals court ruled California public colleges don’t have a legal obligation to protect their students in the same way public elementary and secondary schools do.

Sokolow said he believed it would be at least five to eight years before most states recognized this change, either through the courts or legislatively.

“How can we not be in a special relationship when colleges have become all things to all students?” Sokolow said via email. “In fact, that's what our admission tours promise more than anything else; that college will be your home away from home, and that you’ll find a family in our campus community. Well, families look after each other, and the courts are more and more going to recognize that colleges and universities have to do so with reasonable care.”

While the ruling only applies to California, Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, predicted that it would have far-reaching effects in other states.

“This is a step that no one has been willing to take before,” Lake said. “There are groundbreaking implications -- new duties to follow with curricular activity and in particular in the classroom -- and what are the boundaries of the newly created special relationship?”

Lake said the court deliberately crafted more open-ended language that invites more discussion and, likely, litigation. What will be defined as a “school-sponsored” activity or function remains unclear, he said -- pointing out that this could relate to athletics, some incidents off campus and even study abroad. Some colleges and universities will likely interpret the ruling a little more narrowly for now, but either way they’re scrambling, he said.

In the immediate future, the University of California system won’t change how it operates, said Charles F. Robinson, its general counsel and vice president of legal affairs. He declined to discuss how the system is advising its campuses.

A clearer line would have been limiting public institutions’ duties to just the classroom, Robinson said. Justice Ming W. Chin, who concurred in the opinion, wrote that colleges should be potentially liable in the classroom, but disagreed regarding other educational activities.

The system will need to wait to see what shakes out in lower courts before it adjusts further, Robinson said. Lake said in his interview that the California State Legislature might try further clarifying the definition in some way.

Robinson questioned how colleges could potentially warn other students if there was a situation similar to Rosen’s. Federal privacy laws forbid colleges and universities from revealing details about students’ medical and mental health history, he said -- resulting in “competing objectives.”

“You can’t put a scarlet letter on these students,” he said. “That’s particularly challenging.”

Students who want treatment also might be reluctant to pursue it for fear of having their personal information exposed, Robinson said, though he stressed the California system would not discourage them from seeking treatment.

The court acknowledged the decision might make California public colleges less willing to admit certain students or offer mental health treatment, but wrote in the decision that institutions would be unlikely to do so because of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Many colleges also adopted “sophisticated” countermeasures against campus violence following the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, the court indicated.

Lake said California public colleges now should focus more on preventing violence than avoiding getting sued.

“This is just the beginning of a national debate over the future of college safety,” he said.

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