PHILADELPHIA — A federal appeals court has denied immunity to a substitute teacher who allowed a stranger to remove a kindergarten student from his class despite the fact she failed to show proper identification.
This is the latest court decision in L.R. v. School District of Philadelphia, a case that is tied to the January 2013 kidnapping of a 5-year-old girl, “Jane,” by Christina Regusters from the classroom of Reginald Littlejohn at W.C. Bryant Elementary School. Regusters was found guilty last September of kidnapping and sexual assault of a child and is now serving 40 years to life in prison.
Jane’s mother filed a lawsuit against the Philadelphia School District and Littlejohn, alleging the teacher violated the child’s 14th Amendment right to due process, to be free from bodily injury under a "state-created danger" theory of liability. Specifically, the theory was that Littlejohn used his authority as a teacher to create a danger for his student.
With its ruling, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld an order from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denying a motion by the defendants to dismiss the charges. The school district argued that Littlejohn was protected by qualified immunity.
“Normally school officials are protected by qualified immunity against constitutional claims,” Daniel Conlon, an attorney with Tucker Arensberg, told the Pennsylvania Record.
“(T)he Supreme Court has said they need qualified immunity to shield them from not being able to do their work. That’s probably why the school district said, 'let’s go for it and argue qualified immunity. The law is on our side.’”
The appeals court, however, made it clear this case is the exception.
"(I)t is shocking to the conscience that a kindergarten teacher would allow a child in his care to leave his classroom with a complete stranger,” the judges wrote in their summary. “Exposing a young child to an obvious danger is the quintessential example of when qualified immunity should not shield a public official from suit.”
The court also found the defendants’ argument for dismissal failed because a kindergarten teacher is the gatekeeper for very young children who are unable to make reasoned decisions about when and with whom to leave the classroom.
“Here, it was foreseeable that releasing a young child to a stranger could result in harm to the child,” the court wrote. “This inherent risk is not only a matter of experience as a teacher in charge of a kindergarten classroom, but … it is also a matter of common sense.”
At the time of Jane’s kidnapping, the school district had a policy that school staff must check the identification of visitors.
“The action of having that policy in place showed that the district (recognized) a danger existed if a student left with a stranger,” Conlon said. “The kidnapper failed to produce an I.D., but the teacher still let her take the child. That was (the plaintiff’s) emphasis. If Littlejohn had not acted at all, (Jane) would have remained safe in her classroom.”
The plaintiff is represented by Kline & Specter. Archer & Greiner represent the defendants.
This unusual case is likely being studied by school officials across Pennsylvania.
“The facts of the case are really unique,” Conlon said.