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Court: California Colleges Have Duty To Protect Students

SAN FRANCISCO — Colleges in California have a responsibility to protect students from foreseeable acts of violence in the classroom and other settings connected to their studies and can be held liable for failing to do so, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a lawsuit by a UCLA student who was stabbed by a classmate.

College campuses are communities where many students, though they may no longer be minors, are living on their own for the first time, Associate Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the majority, said. Colleges have mental health counselors, campus police and resident advisers, impose rules and can monitor and discipline students, she added.

“Students are comparatively vulnerable and dependent on their colleges for a safe environment,” she wrote. “Colleges have a superior ability to provide that safety with respect to activities they sponsor or facilities they control.”

Corrigan said the duty to protect students, however, did not extend to student behavior off campus or while involved in social activities unrelated to school.

The decision came in a lawsuit against the University of California regents and several UCLA employees by a UCLA student, Katherine Rosen, who was stabbed by a classmate in 2009 during a chemistry class. Rosen said school officials failed to warn students that her attacker, then 21-year-old Damon Thompson, was potentially violent despite months of reports about his paranoid and threatening behavior.

Thompson acknowledged the attack, was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a mental hospital.

The state Supreme Court unanimously overturned a lower court decision and allowed Rosen’s lawsuit to move forward.

A spokeswoman for the University of California referred comment to UCLA. UCLA said in a statement that it sympathized with Rosen and her family, but was concerned about the decision’s “potential impact on higher education in California and beyond.”

“Student safety remains a top priority for UCLA,” the school said. “The university is committed to providing an environment that is conducive to learning and that provides appropriate resources to support our students in need.”

Corrigan rejected arguments by UCLA that making colleges responsible for protecting students would be expensive and impractical and would discourage schools from offering mental-health and crisis-management services. UCLA also raised concerns that students would refrain from speaking openly to mental-health counselors.

Associate Justice Ming Chin agreed with the majority’s decision to reinstate Rosen’s lawsuit, but said the court was wrong to extend schools’ safety responsibilities beyond the classroom to other study-related activities.

Chin said the opinion was likely to create confusion because there was no guidance on which other activities qualify.

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