By Terry Baynes
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court threw out a civil rights lawsuit on Friday that accused a public school district of repeatedly allowing a stranger to take a 9-year-old Mississippi girl out of school, after which he sexually abused her.
The New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in a 16-2 opinion that Mississippi's Covington County School District had no constitutional duty to protect the fourth grader from the man who checked her out of school six times, posing as a parent.
"Schools are simply not constitutionally required to ensure students' safety from private actors," the court said.
Unlike prisons, mental institutions and foster care systems that assume an active role in caring for their charges, schools don't have the same kind of "special relationship" with their students that could give rise to liability under federal law, the court ruled.
The student, who was not named, and her relatives sued the school district and several school officials in 2008. Even though the elementary school had a check-out policy allowing only designated adults to pick children up, Tommy Keyes signed the girl out of school and then "brutally and viciously raped" her before returning her to class, the complaint said.
Keyes, 38, was convicted of sexual battery and has been serving a 10-year prison sentence in the Winston County Correctional Facility since 2009, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections website.
A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit ruled last August that the school district did have a special relationship with the girl, due to her young age. But the full court reached the opposite conclusion on Friday, rejecting the federal suit.
"Jane's parents were free at any time to remove Jane from the school if they felt that her safety was being compromised," Judge Carolyn King wrote for the majority.
Two judges "strenuously" dissented, finding that a school "cannot be permitted to evade its duty to protect its very young pupils while they are in its exclusive custody."
Christopher Fitzgerald, a lawyer for the student and her family, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
William Whitehead, who represented the school defendants, said he was satisfied with the ruling.
A parallel state lawsuit is still pending in Mississippi, Whitehead said, adding that state law caps damages at $500,000, while federal civil rights law damages are unlimited. The federal complaint had requested at least $78 million in compensatory damages and $143 million in punitive damages.
(Reporting By Terry Baynes)