School districts can be held responsible for the negligent actions of its employees, but only when those employees are acting within the scope of his or her employment. This principle was recently affirmed by a decision of a Tennessee appellate court.

In Doe v. Knox County Board of Education, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee rejected the claim of a former student, who was appealing a trial court’s decision that a school district’s actions did not constitute negligence on the part of the school district.

The student had alleged, and a trial court had found, that a ROTC instructor at West High School in Knoxville had allowed female students, including the plaintiff, to drink alcohol to the point of intoxication and convinced them to expose their breasts. The instructor also videotaped the girls as they exposed themselves.

The trial court, later affirmed by the Appeals court, held that the actions attributed to the instructor were criminal in nature, and clearly not within the scope of his employment as a junior ROTC instructor. Nor did the court find that other school employees were negligent in not being aware of the instructor’s actions. Finally, the court found that any failure to train the instructor was not the cause of any injury (under the presumption that no training was needed for an adult instructor to know that the actions in question were improper).

The court’s decision is that while school districts have an obligation to indemnify its employees, this obligation has limits, and school districts are not legally responsible for the actions of its employees in all circumstances.