Like any other employer-employee relationship, a school will be vicariously liable for the actions and misconduct of its employees in Montana. Thus, it is the school’s legal responsibility to reasonably ensure the safety and competency of its staff. Otherwise, the school could face liability for accidents, injuries, and crimes against its students in the hands of staff members. Understanding a school’s liability for monitoring staff members could help victims of sexual assault and other incidents who are seeking restitution from at-fault parties.

Montana State Has No Record of Abuse Complaints in Case Against Jensen

A recent sexual assault lawsuit filed against a retired Miles City High School athletic trainer, James Jensen, is shedding light on potential issues claimants can encounter when pursing lawsuits decades after the alleged events. The lawsuit claims that James Jensen, now 78, sexually assaulted as many as 100 boys during the 30 years he worked at Custer County District High School, starting in the 1970s. The civil lawsuit names the high school, Jensen, the school district, and yet unnamed school officials as defendants in the claim.

Unfortunately for the victims, state officials have said they do not have any record of 1998 reports school officials allegedly made to the state regarding potential sexual misconduct and assault by a Miles City high school athletic trainer. The state does admit that the school could have filed a report in the past, but says that no record of the report currently exists. The principal of the high school from 1982 to 2002 said the district did in fact receive the misconduct allegations in 1998, and subsequently terminated Mr. Jensen’s employment.

State agencies maintain records and complaints for three years before getting rid of those listed as “unsubstantiated.” It is possible that this is what happened to the reports against Mr. Jensen. District officials have so far not found any signs that would point to the school violating any mandatory reporting requirements. The release of Jensen in 1998 thwarted justice for the victims, who cannot pursue existing allegations because of the statute of limitations. The issue has brought up other conversations about whether schools should be liable for monitoring their staff more closely.

School Responsibilities Over Staff Members

It is a school’s legal duty to reasonably ensure the safety of its students from personal injuries, including those from accidents as well as criminal assaults. What is reasonable depends on what a prudent school would do in the same circumstances. During a civil claim against a school, the courts will look at what another school or its staff members would have done in a similar situation. If the school reasonably could have prevented the harm in question, the school may be liable for damages.

In the case against James Jensen, many victims say they have come across no evidence that the school district fulfilled its legal duty to inform state officials about the 1998 report against Jensen. They also allege that the district failed to pass the complaint onto law enforcement, school staff members, and parents. These failures led to Mr. Jensen being able to retire without damage to his reputation – as well as many victims missing the opportunity to press criminal charges for sexual assault.

It may be possible today for victims of Mr. Jensen’s sexual misconduct to bring a case against the school, as well as other defendants, for negligently failing to monitor its staff members. Had school officials done a better job about conducting background checks, preventing adult teachers from being alone with students, and responding to complaints and allegations regarding sexual misconduct, dozens of boys may have avoided sexual assault. The only restitution for victims now may come in the form of a settlement or judgment award from the school and other at-fault parties for their damages.