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Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in Public Schools

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By Erica L. Pereira
A Massachusetts Superior Court recently ruled on the standard necessary to bring an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against a public entity and/or its employees within the Commonwealth.
In the case of Maclellan v. Dahlheimer, a third grade student brought suit against his classroom teacher and the principal of the school due to a number of incidents. One incident occurred when the student’s teacher took the student’s pen, mistakenly accused him of stealing the pen from her, and never informed the class that the student had not stolen the pen. The principal of the school and the teacher had promised the student’s parents that the entire class would be told that the student did not steal the pen, however, when the apology was scheduled to take place, the principal pulled the class aside while the teacher returned the pen to the student and apologized privately. She is also accused of being overly critical of the student without cause.Furthermore, as a result of the incident, the student was bullied by his classmates. It is put forth that the bullying was not only largely ignored and allowed to continue by the principal and the teacher, but also that the bullying was caused by the teacher’s treatment of the student in front of the class. As a result of these incidents, the student, represented by his parents, brought suit against the teacher and the principal alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Intentional infliction of emotional distress is a claim that requires intentional conduct that is intended to cause harm.  In addition, the intentional conduct must be considered extreme and outrageous by members of the public, and requires a  physical manifestation of emotional distress, such as loss of sleep or an inability to perform at work or school. The Court held that the “extreme and outrageous” standard for conduct must be “beyond all possible bounds of decency and [is] utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”  The Court in this case found that the “extreme and outragous” standard had not been met by either the principal or the teacher. The court went on to state that simply not putting a stop to the bullying, while perhaps a mishandling of the situation, did not rise to the standard needed to sustain a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Court proffered that, had the teacher and principal actively engaged in the bullying themselves, the outcome might have been different, perhaps shedding light on future liabilty.
In addition, the Court offered a policy reason for dismissal. The standard for what consists of extreme and outrageous conduct is heightened when a private party is suing a public entity or employee of a public entity acting on the behalf of the public entity. This allows the public entity to function more smoothly, without fear that every decision made will be second guessed and result in excessive and potentially frivolous lawsuits.
While the Court did not find liability in this case, it left the door open for liability in cases of a similar nature in the future. If you are a teacher or adminstrator in a public school, it would be prudent for you to be aware of how your actions may be interpreted by others and be proactive in combating bullying in the classroom and the playground.