Can You Sue a School for Emotional Distress?

It’s not uncommon for children to experience emotional distress in school. Whether it’s bullying, the fear of being embarrassed or humiliated, or a traumatic event that takes place on campus, such as a shooting, the effects of these events can last long after they’ve happened. This is because children are still developing, and their brains have yet to fully mature. In some cases, this emotional distress may even lead to psychological problems like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While lawsuits against schools for emotional distress are not common, in some extreme situations, you may be able to sue a school when your child suffers emotional distress due to an incident at school. 

What Are the 5 Signs of Emotional Suffering?

As a parent, the five signs of emotional suffering that you should be familiar with include:

  • Personality changes
  • Being uncharacteristically angry, anxious, agitated, or moody
  • Withdrawing or isolating from other people
  • Neglecting self-care and engaging in risky behavior
  • Overcome with hopelessness and overwhelmed by circumstances

If your child starts to exhibit any of these signs, it may mean that they are suffering from emotional distress. 

Personality Changes

Personality changes include sudden or gradual changes in the way your child usually behaves.

They might do things that don’t fit their values, or they might just seem intangibly different to you.

Being Uncharacteristically Angry, Anxious, Agitated, or Moody

You might notice that your child has more difficulty than usual controlling their temper, or they might be more easily irritated. Some people who exhibit this sign may be unable to calm down or sleep.

Withdrawing or Isolating From Other People

If your child, who used to be socially active, starts pulling away from family and friends, they may be isolating themselves. You might also notice that they stop participating in activities that they used to enjoy or even start staying home from school. 

Neglecting Self-Care and Engaging in Risky Behavior

Some people who are experiencing emotional suffering will exhibit a drop in the level of their personal care, while others might exercise poor judgment in their decision-making. For example,  your child might start neglecting their personal hygiene or experimenting with drugs or alcohol.

Overcome With Hopelessness and Overwhelmed by Circumstances

If your child is suffering emotionally, they may experience intense feelings of hopelessness, grief, worthlessness, or guilt. In extreme situations, your child may have suicidal thoughts or express the idea that the world would be a better place without them.

How Can You Take Legal Action Against a School?

Under the “sovereign immunity” granted to government entities, schools and school districts are generally protected from lawsuits. However, most districts create exclusions from their immunity and allow people to sue them under very limited circumstances. 

If your child suffered emotional distress at school, you might be able to take legal action against the school, regardless of whether the cause also involved a physical injury. Particularly, when your child’s emotional distress was inflicted by a teacher or other school employee, or as a result of an unsafe environment or persistent course of bullying, you may be able to pursue a cause of action for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress against a school.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress occurs when one person deliberately causes severe mental distress, emotional trauma, or mental trauma to another through extreme or outrageous conduct. Examples of intentional infliction of emotional distress include bullying, sexual harassment, or the deliberate humiliation of a child. 

On the other hand, negligent infliction of emotional distress occurs when someone violates a duty of care they owe to others, and in doing so, causes emotional trauma to another. Negligent infliction claims can be very challenging to prove, particularly against a school, because most districts only allow themselves to be sued in cases of gross negligence. To prove gross negligence, you must show that the school showed a blatant and reckless disregard for your child’s life, safety, or wellbeing.

When Should I Contact an Education Attorney?

If your child has suffered emotional distress due to a serious altercation at school, you should contact an education attorney immediately. Given the minimal circumstances under which you can sue a school for emotional distress, it’s essential that you review your child’s situation with an experienced professional to determine if you have a case worth pursuing.  

Suing schools is very challenging, and it is not an undertaking to attempt on your own. A skilled education lawyer can navigate the challenging waters of taking legal action against a school to ensure your child gets the results they deserve.

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About & RMO Lawyers

RMO LLP serves clients in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Orange County, and communities throughout California. Our founder, Scott E. Rahn has been named “Top 100 – Trust and Estate Litigation” by SuperLawyers, Trusts and Estates Litigator of the Year, and Best Lawyers in America for Litigation – Trusts and Estates.