In a recent and interesting decision, School Board of Miami-Dade County v. Martinez-Oller, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal addressed whether a high school principal was negligent for failing to disclose a student’s poor disciplinary record to one of her teachers who witnessed an attack perpetrated by that student against another. In an unanimous decision, the Third District determined that the principal did not owe a duty of care to disseminate the student’s disciplinary records, and thus the principal and the school could not be deemed negligent.
The altercation at issue in the case occurred on March 22, 2010. The students were in a world history class when one student directed opprobrious language at another. Insulted, the student hurled an eight-pound textbook at the other. The book made contact with the other student and fractured his eye socket. The teacher was only about three feet away from the students when the incident happened, but the teacher didn’t hear the triggering language. A little more than a year later, the injured student, by and through his parents, brought suit against the school district. The plaintiff asserted claims sounding in negligent supervision, arguing that the principal had a duty to report the attacker’s previous disciplinary incidents to teachers. Under federal law, a student’s educational records, including disciplinary records, are entitled to privacy but may be disclosed to teachers if there is a “legitimate educational interest.” Under Florida law, disciplinary records are maintained at the school but are only accessible to the principal and vice principal unless there is a legitimate educational interest determination made authorizing their dissemination. Although no determination had been made, the trial court had directed a verdict with respect to the issue of whether the principal and, by extension, the school district owed a duty to disclose the student’s prior disciplinary issues to her teachers. The jury was instructed on this and further instructed that the only issue remaining for its determination was whether harm to the injured student was “caused” by the school’s failure to disseminate these records.