February 23, 2018

Managing the Risk to Prevent Injury and Student Death

Foreseeable risk of harm.When risk is managed, injury, student death, and resulting litigation are less likely to occur. All too frequently, it is only after a tragedy that officials look back and ask, “How could this have been avoided?” Risk management is a far-reaching topic, but when focused on the professional standard of care in educational and other child and youth-serving organizations, it comes down to protecting the safety of participants in the care and custody of a school or other organization.

Cases involving allegations of mismanagement, negligent supervision, failure to inspect equipment or premises, and other topics for which we provide forensic consultation and expert witness services are reviewed from the primary standard of care in the industry — protecting children from harm. This standard is accepted in the United States and Canada alike. An identified risk can unnecessarily place a child in harm’s way if it is not managed to reduce the likelihood of injury or student death.

Child and youth-serving organizations, such as public and private schools, residential programs, camps, and daycare centers, have a responsibility to protect the safety of children who participate in their programs. Managing risk in these organizations means actively and regularly assessing existing risks and how they can be effectively avoided. It also requires the development of policies that define the risks and how the organization mitigates them through regular training of students, staff, and parents; considers foreseeable hazards, given the circumstances of the program; inspects equipment, facilities, and grounds; sets standards for child supervision; makes sure risks are communicated to administrators and to those in charge of supervising children; and most importantly, enforces policies on a consistent basis. When these elements are in place and effectively communicated and enforced, there is less possibility that the organization will be held liable for the injury or student death. Without these elements in place, a plaintiff will be able to argue that the risk was there but was ignored by the organization.

 

Managing Foreseeable Risks of Harm to Prevent Personal Injury or Student Death

The concept of risk management emerged in the mid-1970s in relation to physical education and sports, camping and adventure activities, and parks. The American Camping Association added an accreditation standard regarding a risk management plan in the 1980s. Schools and other organizations, particularly since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, recognize the potential for liability and are taking their responsibility to protect students from harm more seriously. However, the focus over the past five years has been mostly on the development of emergency-response plans when someone in or near the school poses a threat to student safety. These plans require that schools “lock down” the building in light of a threat — and in some circumstances, a school’s quick response has deterred tragedy.

But many other dangers and hazards that are often overlooked can increase the likelihood of personal injury, student death and, consequently, litigation. Consider these real-life cases for which we have been engaged: A third grade child is killed while crossing the street in front of his school; pit bulls attack a high school student participating in a physical education class in a park across the street from the school; five high school boys drown when they take a boat onto a river at night during a leadership training program. In all of these examples, questions arose as to whether administrators considered the foreseeability of these incidents and whether they failed to meet the standard of care to reasonably protect children from harm.

In the case of the third grader who was killed while crossing the street, the school principal was aware that cars parked under “no parking” signs on that street. When a child runs out from between cars, as was the case here, neither the child nor the driver of a vehicle will likely see each other until it’s too late. To add to the risk, the school did not provide crossing guards at the corners, and teachers let their students out unsupervised at the end of the day. After any risk is identified and assessed, the next step is to establish procedures to mitigate or eliminate the risk. The principal could have organized student dismissal differently, requiring teachers to escort their students out of the building and to the corner, where they could cross safely. When a child is injured or killed and the allegation is that the organization acted in a negligent way, the defendant typically reviews how the child was injured and identifies ways to avoid a similar occurrence in the future.

Similarly, when a school allowed the physical education teacher to use the city park across the street from the high school, it already knew that one of its teachers was seriously attacked by off-leash dogs on school grounds, and it was known that the park had a high crime rate. Classes were regularly held in an area that any reasonable administrator would consider dangerous, especially when classes were not monitored by someone from the school like a security office. One day, when an owner let his dogs off-leash, the dogs attacked one of the students, causing serious physical and emotional injury. This tragedy could have been averted if the school adequately assessed the risk and made an informed decision about allowing the teacher to regularly take her class to the park. Failure to adequately assess the risk of having students off school grounds, and in particular, in a known dangerous area, placed them in harm’s way.

In any situation where children are in an unfamiliar setting, such as on a field trip, those in charge have a responsibility to review the situation, identify the risks, and mitigate those risks. In the example of five high school students who drowned, the boys snuck out of a cabin in the middle of the night and went to the riverbank. They ignored the dangerous current and prominent signs to stay off the water, then took unsecured boats onto the water. The students were under the supervision of their school chaperones at a camp that was responsible only to provide seminars and educational programs during the day. In this example, the questions revolved around who had the responsibility to assess risks and protect the students. Did the camp assess the risk of drowning in the river and did it warn invitees appropriately by posting signs? Did the school assess the risk of students leaving cabins unsupervised during the night and the foreseeability of injury? Did the 17 and 18-year-old students have a responsibility for their own safety?

The school in this example had a policy that required at least one adult chaperone to supervise each of the four cabins rented by the school. When such a policy is developed, there is a reason for it — a risk has been identified and a determination has been made that by acting in a certain way, such as providing a number of chaperones with specific duties, the risk will be minimized. In this case, when the students left the cabin there was only one chaperone present. The others had moved to another cabin with the other adults, leaving the students with the ability to sneak out. One does not have to identify the risks to realize that high school students who leave their cabin in the middle of the night unsupervised can get into mischief that can result in harm. The camp was aware of the risk of drowning in the river and posted signs to warn invitees about it. The students were part of a special program and were selected as leaders, and there was nothing in their individual records that would cause a reasonable school administrator to be concerned that they would not be able to heed “Do Not Enter the River” warning signs. Ultimately, in a case like this, there may be shared responsibility for student deaths. The point is that each organization must assess its duty to the students, invitees, and others involved, determine the risks of harm, and develop policies and procedures to manage the risks.

 

Risk Management and Care of Students with Disabilities

Risk management also applies to the supervision and program development of students with disabilities. Often, children with specific disabilities may act in ways that require the school to review their behavior and develop a behavior intervention plan, assign an assistant teacher to the classroom or to escort the child through the school or on class trips, or to provide counseling or social-skill development classes for the child. We consider the unique circumstances of each case, and we review and analyze standards established through written policies and procedures and through unwritten customs and practices of an organization. An organization that should have (by statute or regulation), or could have (by moral or professional standard) acted affirmatively but did not manage a risk that resulted in injury to a child, may be liable.

On the other hand, risks can never be completely eliminated. Often, even when schools and other organizations have adequately assessed risk, developed policies, rules, and, regulations to manage the risk, properly communicated them to employees and participants, and adequately enforced the rules, accidents and injuries still occurred and defendants may not have directly contributed to the condition that caused injury. This is especially true in cases where the participant acted so quickly that no reasonable supervisor of that person would have been able to stop the behavior before injury occurred. In the defense of such cases, the important thing is that the organization recognized the risk of harm, managed the risk effectively, developed policies and procedures to eliminate the risk, developed and implemented student programs and services such as individualized education programs, communicated with supervisors, and enforced its policies.

It’s in the review and analysis of the details of a case where such questions are answered and an expert opinion can help to settle a lawsuit or provide information at trial for a verdict.

Professional Standard of Care in Past Cases of Child Sexual Abuse in Public and Private Schools

school sexual abuseStandard of care is a general expression of what constitutes care in professions such as medicine, nursing, education, or child care administration. In schools and other agencies responsible for the care and supervision of children, the professional standard of care is the ethical or legal responsibility of a professional to exercise the level of care, diligence, and skill that other professionals in the same discipline would apply in the same or similar circumstances. This, coupled with statutory requirements and case law, defines the care that an educational professional is responsible for providing to children which includes protection from child sexual abuse.

In the field of education administration and supervision, as in most professions, the standard of care changes over time. The standard regarding what constitutes sexual harassment and child sexual abuse has evolved over decades. At times, our firm is asked to review a case that took place a couple of decades ago or even longer. When addressing the question of whether a school or other child-related agency met the professional standard of care, we must determine what the accepted standard and practice was at that time of the alleged child sexual abuse or other harmful incident.

 

Evolution of the Standard of Care Regarding Sexual Harassment and Child Sexual Abuse

The current standard of care requires that a public or private school has clear policies prohibiting sexual harassment, that such a policy identifies a trained person to be notified with a complaint, and that it outlines and documents the investigative process and the results of the investigation. Before Title IX became law in 1972 and the Office of Civil Rights published declarative information to school administrators, standards of care varied. If an incident of sexual harassment or abuse occurred in 1968, the standards articulated in Title IX were not applicable as a matter of law. However, ethical and other community standards, as well as local board of education and agency policies and practices, may constitute the standard by which the behavior of professionals at that time can be judged.

The earliest standards defining the rights of children were reflected in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1959. This policy statement stressed 10 principles affirming the right of children to receive special protection, to be given opportunities and facilities that enable them to develop in a healthy and normal manner, to receive an education, and to be protected against neglect, cruelty, and exploitation, including child sexual abuse. This general edict became more specific as individual countries began to develop legislation regarding the care and protection of children and as case law began to define neglect, cruelty, and exploitation — including sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse.

Over the past 20 years, our society has become more aware of the problem of children being sexually harassed and abused by adults representing religious and educational organizations. Cases such as Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools in 1992 and Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education in 1996 defined sexual harassment and identified how a school’s complacency created an abusive environment depriving a student of educational benefits.  The Supreme Court ruled in the Franklin matter that monetary damages could be awarded to individual victims of sexual harassment under Title IX and a school district could be held financially liable for a coach’s predatory behavior toward a student athlete.  In the Davis matter, the Supreme Court decision helped to clarify the definition of sexual harassment of one student toward another and further clarified the professional standard required of schools. The court held that a private Title IX damages action may lie against a school board in cases of student-on-student harassment — but only when the school has actual knowledge of sexual harassment that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively deprives the student of access to education and was deliberately indifferent to this activity.

Another Supreme Court case that further established the professional standard of care was Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, a case that addressed the issue of teachers who engage in sexual relationships with students. In this case, the Supreme Court determined that school districts are not liable under Title IX for teacher–student sexual harassment unless a responsible employee actually knew of the abuse and had the power to end it but failed to do so. These cases, along with standards from the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education in the form of “Dear Colleague” letters, contributed to the evolution of standards.

Though educational institutions, including K-12 schools and university level institutions, became subject to Title IX regulations in 1972, it was not until Franklin, Gebser and Davis were decided in 1992, 1998 and 1999, respectively, that the Supreme Court would define how schools can be held accountable under Title IX for sexual harassment. For allegations that occurred within the intervening quarter century, it can be challenging to identify and define the professional standard of care. However, there are other statutes, such as state child abuse-and-neglect laws and board of education policies written within that time span, that can help to identify the professional standard of care. For example, California enacted its first child-abuse reporting law in 1963. Before then, there was no legislation that defined the professional standard of care, such as mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect.  At that time, mandated reporters were subject to liability for making reports of abuse that turned out to be unfounded, and this thwarted reporting until the law was revised in 1980, when failure to report child abuse was criminalized and mandated reporters were given immunity for making reports. The California example has become the standard around the country. This is an example of how important it is to be aware of the prevailing professional standard when addressing the circumstances of a situation. Before the change in the California law, if a teacher had suspicion that a child was being abused, that person may not have reported it out of fear of reprisal. It doesn’t make that right, but when looking at the failure to act on the part of a teacher, one must take into consideration the laws and standards at the time that often set the moral compass.

A prohibition of inappropriate sexual behavior was not mentioned decades ago in documents of the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, or other recognized standard-setting organizations. Without a specific standard against which to compare what the administration of a school or agency did or failed to do, a plaintiff may have a more difficult time proving a breach of the standard. On the other hand, when there is statute, regulation, or policy identified within a specific timeframe and the allegation of abuse falls within an era in which these standards were acceptable in the field, then as an expert witness I am able to use those as benchmarks. When standards are in place, the plaintiff will have a better likelihood of successfully arguing that the standard was breached.

 

Case examples: Determining Standard of Care in Past Child Sexual Abuse or Harassment

When an attorney engages our firm to render an expert opinion about whether a school or other child supervisory agency in the United States or Canada may be liable for an alleged incident in the past, the complexities inherent in changing standards — such as the example of California law — require us to research and identify the standard of care at a specific time or period to render an opinion as to whether the school or agency met that standard.

For example, one of our case reviews involved alleged ongoing sexual harassment and child sexual abuse by a teacher between 1982 and 1989. A former elementary school student alleged that his teacher sexually abused him over that period while providing tutoring services at the student’s home. My review of the professional standard of care at that time revealed that there was no standard, statute or regulation, or board of education policy that required the school to develop a policy regarding sexual harassment of students by employees or to provide training to employees regarding sexual harassment. Additionally, there was no board of education policy requiring the school to develop standards regarding the provision of tutoring. During this timeframe, the professional standard of care did not compel the school to monitor outside teacher–student relationships, including tutoring relationships that parents arranged for and approved. In comparing today’s standard with that in the 1980s, one finds that because of the development of laws such as Title IX and the understanding that children are targeted by some teachers who sexually harass and abuse them, the standard of care is very different. Nowadays, the professional standard of care requires that schools provide employees with training on detection and prevention of sexual harassment, child sexual abuse and behaviors and ethical boundaries that cross the line of a typical teacher–student relationship. The opinion reached, following a review of testimony and documents, was that the school did not breach the professional standard of care at the time because none clearly existed.

Another case illustrates the challenges that exist when attempting to identify the professional standard of care over a period of time that might extend decades. This case was based on an allegation of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of students with disabilities in a residential school. The timeframe of the allegations of abuse spanned from 1951 through 2012. The state Department of Education was responsible for the supervision of educational programs in this publicly supported and funded school. It was also in charge of inspection, the improvement of instruction, and the protection of disabled students. As part of the review of this case to render an opinion as to whether the government, the Department of Education, and the school collectively and independently met the applicable standard of professional care within this timeframe, we began by reviewing legislation from the early 1900s that placed the education of disabled students, including the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, under the authority of the government. The claims in this case, specific to the school, spanned six decades, during which time standards of care changed from decade to decade. The challenge of this review was to identify each standard on a timeline from 1950s for each decade through the present and determine whether the involved entities met the standard for the protection of students with disabilities who were under the control, care, and supervision of the government.

In some cases, including this one, basic parental standards are considered when no other standards exist. This is done under the theory of in loco parentis and the school’s basic responsibility to protect students and act as any reasonable parent would, based on the circumstances and known information. For example, if the dorm supervisors in 1950s were aware that male students were entering rooms of female students at night and female students complained of inappropriate behavior or sexual conduct, the school had a responsibility to ensure that students are appropriately supervised to prevent such situations, as any reasonable parent at that time would do.

When reviewing such cases, to render an opinion as to whether a school or agency acted appropriately and reasonably and met the professional standard of care, we first determine what the accepted standard was during the relevant period of the allegation of child sexual abuse or other harmful incident. Next, we consider the standards as defined by the school or agency, based on the existing policies and procedures at that time. By applying the education, training, and professional experience of an education administrator to the review of the issues of a case and the relevant standards at the time, an opinion is rendered as to whether the school or agency met the professional standard of care within the field of education administration and supervision.

Professional Standard of Care in the Field of School Administration and Student Supervision

professional standard of careParents are responsible for the protection and care of their children, and there may be legal consequences if a parent negligently fails to take reasonable steps to protect his or her child from harm. As with parents, entities and agencies charged with the care and supervision of children are responsible for the protection of their health, safety, and well-being. A partial list of such entities or programs include daycare centers, preschools, summer camps, YMCA centers, K–12 private and public schools, private schools that provide residences for students, and residential centers for adjudicated youth. When a child is placed into the care and custody of such an organization, that entity assumes control and supervision over the child comparable to parental care — and is held to even a higher professional standard of care established within the field of education.

If a child is injured and if it can be demonstrated that the entity responsible for supervision and care of the child failed to act appropriately and reasonably under a specific circumstance, it might be liable for such events as wrongful death, serious personal injury, or sexual assault. Once a child is under the care of professionals in such programs, specific legal standards and the professional standard of care become important factors in assessing whether the agency, through its administration and/or employees, met those standards and whether the breach of legal or professional standards may have contributed to harm.

 

Professional Standard of Care Defined

The professional standard of care is defined as the level and type of care that a reasonably competent and skilled professional, with a similar background and in the same setting, would have provided under the circumstances that led to the alleged injury. This is the watchfulness, attention, caution, and prudence that a reasonable person in the circumstance would exercise. If a person’s actions do not meet this standard, then his or her actions fail to meet the duty of care and, therefore, fall outside the professional standard of care.

In matters involving tort claims, the standard of care required when children are involved is for those in charge to act reasonably in view of the probability of injury to a child. The standard is not that of an insurer of safety but, rather, that reasonable precautions and responses are taken in light of the circumstances. Schools, day care centers, and camps have a responsibility to provide reasonably safe premises, considering the nature and conduct of children who will be using the facilities. However, when an agency is responsible for the safety of children, performing the standard of care expected of a prudent citizen or parent is not adequate; the standard of care in this instance is that of a reasonable and prudent professional. This means that a physical education teacher, for instance, would have to act as both an ordinary, reasonable person and as a reasonable and prudent physical education teacher. The standard of care is measured by the judgment, knowledge, experience, training, perception of risk, and skill that a person in the capacity of a professional would have. Often, the application of an expert’s education, training, and professional experience becomes the pivotal point to determine whether, in a particular circumstance, a teacher or other professional met the professional standard of care.

Failure to meet a standard in a particular field, such as education administration and supervision, is negligence, and any damages that result may be claimed in a lawsuit by the injured party. This encompasses both the legal and professional standards within a field. At times, the standard is often a subjective issue about which reasonable people can differ. Some professional standards of care in the field of education administration and supervision are clearly defined in law, such as in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX requires every school district to identify a person who will act as a Title IX coordinator. If the school has not identified such a person, then it has not met the legal standard of care. In a different circumstance, there may not be a statute to define a legal standard of care but within the field, there is an acceptance of how things are typically done. For example, there may be no state regulation regarding the staff-to-student ratio when supervising students on a playground during recess. Some school districts have their own policies or rules about staffing and student supervision, but in their absence, local standards, common sense and good administrative practice prevail.

 

Failure to Apply the Professional Standard of Care Can Result in School Negligence

If a school administrator knows that a student is being harassed but doesn’t take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects, the administrator may be acting outside the professional standard of care. On the one hand, there is a legal standard that is articulated in Title IX — that immediate action be taken — but on the other hand, what within the professional field defines immediate? Is immediate within one hour, five hours, or three days? The answer — and what becomes the professional standard of care — depends upon the circumstances. Additionally, assessing whether the action taken was sufficient to eliminate the harassment does not fit neatly within the strict legal standard of care, but more appropriately fits in the professional standard of care. This must be determined within the specific context of an event.

For example, did a principal act within the professional standard of care when, upon being informed of sexual harassment of a student by a classmate, he waited until the next school day to address the report? This depends on the context of the situation and nuances that would be understood by an experienced education administrator. As an education administration and supervision expert witness, I utilize my education, training, and professional experience as a school administrator to review the allegation and the report, examine the circumstances from a school administrator’s point of view, and render an opinion as to what a reasonably competent and skilled professional would have done under the circumstances. Although the law may use the term “immediate” action or response, the context of the situation allows the expert witness to opine as to whether the administrator’s action or inaction met the professional standard of care.

Within the daycare industry, there are many legal standards that must be met in order for a school to obtain a state license. One example is that a specific child-to-adult ratio be maintained in the classroom and during recreational activities. However, once children are outside being supervised by the appropriate number of staff, judgements based on circumstances might need to be made: Should the child be restricted from play if he becomes overly aggressive? Should children be kept away from the grass that was just cut? Should a child be sent to the nurse because she complains of a headache? These are decisions that are made based on the professional standard of care. There may not be a defining legal standard or school policy restricting a child from playing with others. As the professional, the supervising staff member must make a decision based on the circumstances, the nature of the child, and any safety issues, such as the location. Overall, the person in charge must act as a prudent professional under the circumstance to protect the health and safety of the children in his or her charge.

 

Legal and Professional Standards of Care for Children with Disabilities

The most vulnerable children in a school are those with disabilities who, at times, may be unable to defend themselves. An important aspect of protecting children with disabilities is for a school to identify a child’s learning, emotional, and social abilities and develop an Individual Education Program (IEP) to protect the child from harm. There are legal and professional standards of care when a school is responsible for the protection of vulnerable children. The legal standard of care is that every public school district identify students who may be individuals with disabilities and who may benefit from special education and related services. Once a child has been identified as in need of specialized services, then the school, as a matter of the professional standard of care, should determine what services (such as an aide) would be needed to keep the child safe. If a student was neither identified as an individual with a disability nor provided with an IEP and then engaged in sexual behaviors with peers, it might be relevant that the district did not identify this student as one who was having social or emotional issues that negatively affected his or her education. If the student was not identified as one who could benefit from special education but should have been, there may be an argument for the district having breached the legal standard of care — that is, for not developing an IEP, a behavioral plan, and a safety plan for the student. In this example, the professional standard of care may focus on earlier behaviors noted by teachers and whether a teacher who had this knowledge sought to have the student evaluated in order to develop an IEP. Whenever the legal and professional standards of care are examined in a situation involving a student with a disability, it is important to engage the services of an expert witness with experience in the special education field.

When professionals take over for parents in schools, daycare centers, camps, and other organizations they have a responsibility to protect those children and act the way a reasonable parent would act. But this alone is not enough. They also are responsible for providing the care expected of a professional person in the field of child supervision.

Student Safety: Screening and Background Checks for School Volunteers

student safetySchools, after-school programs, summer camps, sunday schools, daycares and other agencies that supervise children are responsible for student safety of children in their care. Failing to apply the same attention to ensuring that non-licensed individuals, such as volunteers, meet the same standards as teachers and other paid staff can place students — and ultimately a school, district, or other agency — at risk. When the history of a volunteer or chaperone on an overnight school trip includes something that would raise a red flag but the school is unaware of it, school officials are not able to make an informed decision about whether or not that person should be allowed to interact with children.

The risks of not adequately screening individuals who have direct contact with children have been apparent in cases for which Education Management Consulting, LLC, has been engaged to review and provide expert witness services. Many such cases involve harm, injury, negligent supervision and even sexual abuse of children by volunteers. At times, our reviews of school policies, personnel records, and testimony have determined that failure to conduct a reasonably appropriate background check and screening was the proximate cause of harm to children.

In one such case, the school argued that there was no state requirement for a district to apply the same level of scrutiny to volunteers as when it hires teachers. The school had conducted a standard criminal background check, but unlike the standard it applied to teachers, the school did not conduct interviews with supervisors at past volunteer posts. The volunteer was allowed to participate in a classroom on a regular basis. Over time, he developed an inappropriate sexual relationship with one of the students. A case review discovered that he had served as a volunteer in another school district, where he was told not to come back because the administration was uncomfortable about his interactions with students. The volunteer had listed the prior school and his supervisor on his volunteer application, but the new school did not contact the prior school for a reference. Had the school done so, it likely would not have compromised their student safety and would have heard about the previous school’s concerns and rejected his volunteer application.

 

State Requirements for Volunteer Screenings and Background Checks

Background checks and screenings of teachers are required in every state, and school districts have developed procedures to provide reasonable assurance that only teachers of high moral quality come in contact with children. When a background check reveals that a candidate was convicted of domestic violence or another crime against a person, the school may be prohibited from hiring that person.

Conducting background checks on prospective teachers as a student safety measure has been established in the field of education administration for decades. However, it wasn’t until 2000 that states began to pass laws addressing background checks on volunteers, and to this day, a patchwork of legal requirements exists. New Mexico, for instance, mandates background checks on all school volunteers, while New Jersey “allows” but does not require boards of education to conduct criminal record checks on volunteers. Volunteers in Florida schools are screened only for criminal histories logged in the state of Florida but not in other states. When state law is less strict for volunteers than it is for teachers, schools are free to adopt their own policies that are more stringent.

National guidelines developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses encourage schools to conduct criminal background checks on all volunteers. To help schools implement this guideline, Texas Education Code allows a school district to obtain from any law enforcement or criminal justice agency all criminal records that relate to a person who serves as or has applied to be a school volunteer. In Pennsylvania, schools must check volunteer applicants’ backgrounds through the state Department of Human Services and Pennsylvania State Police, and are also required to obtain a federal criminal history. Seattle Public Schools screen all volunteers who work directly with students through the Washington Access to Criminal History background check system — the same process used for teachers and other licensed staff — and conducts reference checks. Volunteers are allowed to begin service before the screening process is completed, provided there is proper supervision. The volunteer’s continued involvement with the school depends on the results of the check.

 

Student Safety in Specialized Programs and Placements

While schools have a responsibility to protect student safety on campus, on school-sponsored trips, and at school activities, are they also responsible for the protection of students who attend programs at a school that is not under its direct control, such as a special education or vocational school? Should the school that assigns students to such programs assure that the employees and volunteers at the receiving school meet certain screening standards? If a school allows a private after-school program to operate in its gym, should it assure that volunteers in that program meet the same standard as if they volunteered in the school?

These are among the many questions in cases for which we have been engaged. Every case is uniquely different, and an analysis leading to an expert opinion can be very complex. In each case, however, the ultimate standard of professional care is that the school, through its administration, has a responsibility to act appropriately and reasonably to protect the health, safety, and well-being of its children. It is reasonable for the home school to expect that an external program or service will effectively screen employees and volunteers who come in contact with its students.

Examining one of our cases involving a child with a disability will help to illustrate. A high school student was placed in a class for students with cognitive and physical disabilities. As she got older, it was necessary for the school to deliver vocational training services through a separate agency. School personnel, the student’s parents, and others involved in this decision understood that the student demonstrated inappropriate, sexually oriented behavior toward peers and needed careful supervision wherever she was educated. This also required that those working with her at the school, including teachers and volunteers, were appropriately screened. Knowing of her propensity for this type of behavior should have caused her school to consider whether those she would come in contact with at the new placement would allow or encourage this behavior. Shortly after the student was placed at this program, and in my opinion because she was not adequately supervised, an adult volunteer engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with her. As part of the overall review of the case, the personnel file of the volunteer was examined and it revealed that he was not screened by the vocational program administration — in my opinion, a failure of the home school to meet the professional standard of care. Teachers at the program needed to be licensed, which required a criminal background check. Volunteers, however, were allowed to work in the program without a background check. It would have been reasonable for the school sending its student to the vocational program to inquire about the program’s policy regarding background checks for volunteers and then determine whether the student would reasonably be protected from harm.

 

Student Safety and Standard of Professional Care

When reviewing cases similar to those discussed above, we consider state law and school district policy as the standard, and then consider the overall responsibility of a school to protect its students. This is the overriding standard of professional care. If an adult staff member or volunteer who was not adequately screened should sexually assault a student, then an argument may be made that the proximate cause of the child’s injury was failure on the part of the school to fully investigate the person’s background in order to reasonably assure the protection of students. On the other hand, if the school followed state law and its own policy, applying the same standard to approving volunteers as it did for teachers and other staff, and yet an inappropriate relationship developed because of other circumstances, then it can be argued that the screening process was appropriate.

Does everyone in a school or other agency who has contact with children have to be screened? And what is an appropriate and reasonable level of screening? The distinction that should be made is whether a person is a visitor to a program or a volunteer who has a defined regular role in it. Parents have the right to visit their child’s school and to observe their child in class. They can have lunch with their child and attend classroom and school events. In this context, the parent is a visitor, and complete background checks are not required. When a parent or other person takes on a regular role in the classroom or supervises on an overnight class trip, more scrutiny is required. Providing assistance in these ways shifts the person’s classification from visitor to volunteer. If the person is in the school on a regular basis and others expect to see the person frequently, then he or she is considered a volunteer, and the school must make an informed determination as to whether or not to allow the person to interact with students.

Schools are held to strict requirements when hiring licensed school personnel. Applying the same standard to the screening of volunteers is one way to protect children from harm and keep them safe.

In Loco Parentis: Duty of Educators and Professionals in Residential Programs for Children

Educator DutySome of our most vulnerable children are relegated to a life away from parents, family, and their school to live where other adults take the place of their parents and are responsible for their custody or care – legally defined as in loco parentis. This occurs when children are placed in residential centers for the treatment of mental illness, schools for the deaf and blind, or similar facilities for children who require extensive medical care and management.

In my September 2015 article, I discussed parental and professional standards of care when considering supervision of children in residential placements. The reasonable and prudent parent uses judgment in making decisions about their children’s care. Parents usually make decisions carefully, weighing the benefits and potential risks to come to a sensible decision that is in the best interest of the child. When professionals care for children, they have a duty to meet the same standard, but they also have a higher duty to meet the standards of a reasonably prudent professional. Professionals such as teachers, program administrators, psychologists, counselors, doctors, and nurses have the legal responsibility to exercise the level of care, diligence, and skill prescribed in the code of practice of their profession, the legal requirements of the government, and in the policies of the residential program.

When a child has a condition or disability that is not common and when the child’s disability cannot adequately be addressed in the local school, community, or at home, placement at a specialized facility to meet these needs may be required. These placements provide educational, medical, and residential programs. Staff who supervise children where they live act in place of parents. These adults are expected to protect the child from dangers and prevent the child from engaging in harmful or irresponsible behaviors. This responsibility fulfills the reasonably prudent parent standard of care. In addition, the care of these children extends beyond the simple need to house them, and meeting the professional duty extends in tandem with their needs and disabilities.

 

Duty Under In Loco Parentis

In a residential facility, in loco parentis refers to how a supervisor or caregiver who directly oversees the actions of a child deals with the child’s conduct. This is the same as when a parent sets boundaries for his or her child, then instructs, guides, or disciplines the child. In a residential setting, the person who is standing in place of the parent holds authority over the child, acting in loco parentis.  Elements of in loco parentis define the duty that educators and caregivers owe to their students.  This includes principles of negligence and the duty to anticipate foreseeable dangers and take reasonable steps to protect students from those dangers.

When an adult acting in loco parentis steps over the line with regard to the role of a reasonably prudent parent, the residential facility may be liable for the adult’s actions. As an example, a caregiver’s use of undue force that would fall under the definition of assault and battery may be cause for liability if the child is injured. If a child assaults and injures another child during a moment of inadequate supervision, this also may also be a cause for liability. The Ohio Supreme Court has stated that although a teacher may stand in loco parentis with regard to enforcement of authority, the teacher does not stand in loco parentis with regard to one’s negligent acts and thus is not accorded the same tort immunity given parents (Baird v. Hosmer, 46 Ohio St. 2d 273, 75 Ohio Ops. 2d 323, 347 N.E. 2d 553 (1976)). In the same way, while a person in charge of a child in a residence is considered acting in loco parentis, that person is not safe under tort immunity if he or she failed to act as a reasonably prudent parent.

 

Professional Standard of Care

A residential program becomes that child’s world. All his or her needs must be met, including shelter, food, medical care, counseling, and recreation, just as if the child was living at home and attending school. In this all-inclusive setting, there are people trained as professionals — teachers, counselors, psychologists, and supervisors — who have total responsibility for the health, safety, and well-being of the child. These programs must have adequate plans for meeting the needs of the children in their care, and these plans should be shared across disciplines and departments.

For example, if a student has demonstrated behavioral problems while on a school trip, that information should be provided to the adults who are in charge in the residence and are acting in loco parentis. This process is similar to a schoolteacher informing a parent at home about a child’s behavior. The intent is to work together with the parents in the child’s interest. When this system is nonexistent or breaks down in a residential setting, resulting in student injury, the program may be open to liability. If a teacher observes a student running away during a class trip but fails to share that information with those in charge of the residence, the agency might be liable if the child wanders off and is injured. The agency had knowledge of the student’s behavior, failed to report it to those in charge of the residence and, overall, failed to enact a cross-departmental plan to protect the child.

To protect children from harm and the agency from liability, it is important to conduct the required evaluations and assessments, have as much information about a student as possible, seek additional information when warranted, assess and evaluate behaviors and symptoms, share that information with key staff in residential, school, and health departments, and develop comprehensive plans that account for safety and supervision. All professionals involved, including residential staff, should pay attention to a child’s new behaviors, manifestations of challenges, and conditions that are part of their disability or diagnosis, and use that information as part of a coordinated approach for meeting the standard of care for the child in their custody.

For example, I was engaged as the education administration and supervision expert witness in a case involving a child who had been receiving extensive counseling through a residential program’s health department. His tendency toward violent behavior and information about triggers for such behavior were not shared with other adults in the program, nor was this information used to develop a safety plan. Treating professionals did not assess and evaluate the student’s key signs of mental health deterioration, despite many instances that should have caused them to provide additional care. Eventually, the student suffered a mental breakdown, broke into an administrative office, grabbed scissors, and escaped the building. Police who arrived on the scene shot the student when he did not respond to their demands to put the scissors down. Mentally, he was not aware of what was going on and did not understand the police’s instructions.

My review and analysis of this case led me to conclude that the program had sufficient information about the student’s emotional and behavioral issues but failed to address those manifesting behaviors, and on the day of the incident, staff was unable to communicate effectively with him to de-escalate the behaviors. Before being shot, the student was confronted by a teacher who did not have complete information about the student’s behavioral issues or how to deal with them. The teacher’s actions escalated the behavior, placed other students and school staff in harm’s way, and ended in student being shot. If the program had an overall safety plan for this student that included staff training in how to deal with him, it is less likely that he would have been shot. It was my opinion that the program, through its administration and other staff, breached the standard of professional care when it failed to address the student’s mental health issues, failing also to inform and train all staff about the student’s problems and how to protect the student and others from harm.

 

Training and Oversight are Essential to Avoid Residential Program Liability

Numerous case reviews by Education Management Consulting, LLC, have concluded that a residential facility or agency had access to policies and provincial, state, or federal rules, but those policies were not implemented nor was staff adequately trained to use them. In some of these cases, the result was that children were injured, sexually abused, or physically assaulted by other students. Prevention, detection, and reporting of child abuse, knowing how to administer appropriate restraints without injuring a child who acts out, and understanding the requirements for continuous supervision of children are just a few of the areas that require training and oversight. If an injured plaintiff can demonstrate that the facility had in-house policies or that government policies were available but it failed to train staff in those policies and supervise their work, then the program may not be able to avoid liability.

Frequently, when I review a case as an expert witness, I find that the facility had adequate policies, the supervision of children and staff-to-child ratios were good, and the discipline code and rules for children were well thought out and reasonable, but there was a breach in the system. In one such case, for example, a child in a residential school sexually assaulted another in the bathroom. On paper, the policies and supervision procedures looked good. The missing link was that staff responsible for supervising children had knowledge that the predator had done this before, yet made no attempt to provide additional supervision when this particular child was alone with another.

Policies are only as good as the training and monitoring of staff responsible for implementing them. In this case, the facility had knowledge of one resident’s sexually aggressive behavior, but failed to take any reasonable steps to prevent her from harming another child. They failed to provide her with any counseling or heightened supervision, and in fact one of her first offenses was not reported to outside authorities for investigation. In essence, she was allowed to continue her inappropriate behavior. If the facility provided her with appropriate follow-up counseling, reported the first incident to the authorities, and stepped up its supervision of her, it would have been, in my opinion, less likely that this incident would have occurred. 

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry provides guidelines for residential treatment programs in its 2010 publication, Principles of Care for Treatment of Children and Adolescents with Mental Illnesses in Residential Treatment Centers. The Academy offers an approach for professionals about the provision of services and some important training and educational standards, such as hiring staff with appropriate credentials and experience.  There are other similar publications, training programs and professionals available to assist residential care centers with training and keeping up with the standards in the field.

 

Summary

On December 3, 2014, the Chicago Tribune reported that thousands of children in residential treatment centers in Illinois are assaulted, sexually abused, and run away. The residential centers promise round-the-clock supervision and therapy to children who are wards of the state and who have histories of abuse and neglect, as well as to other disadvantaged youths with mental health and behavioral problems. The Tribune reported that patient-on-patient sexual assault is commonplace at some facilities, and vulnerable children are terrorized by older ones. Some are preyed on sexually by adults paid to care for them. In the three years ending with 2013, Illinois residential facilities reported 428 alleged cases of sexual assault or abuse of children in their care to the state Department of Children and Family Services. The state and program administrators said they are underfunded and overwhelmed by too many children, many of whom don’t belong at the facility. In a legal assessment of whether a program, its administration, or staff acted appropriately and reasonably in a specific circumstance, however, these are no excuses.

Adults in schools, camps, daycare centers, and residential programs have a duty to protect children from harm. But when children are placed away from home, out of sight of parents in residential programs, it isn’t unusual for them to be subjected to harm.  Unfortunately abuse and mistreatment typically comes to light after years of poor management, lack of training, lack of government oversight, and staff incompetency. In so many institutions and residential programs, children are often forgotten — out of the sight of the public and their parents. Some programs began in the 1800’s when social capabilities and awareness, along with frustration and lack of resources, forced them into existence. We are just realizing now that so much mistreatment and abuse has taken place but kept quiet and children were hurt.

Student Injury and Standard of Professional Care Analysis in Schools

student injuryRisk of personal injury to children is reduced when activities, facilities, equipment, personnel, and supervision are brought into compliance with “standards.” There are several sources of standards. Some standards are mandated by law through statutes. Additional standards are set forth by oversight authorities, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Camping Association, the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations, or the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, to name a few. Other standards involve the customary professional practice of those conducting such activities. Ignorance of such standards is no excuse for failing to comply and schools and agencies with children have a duty to be proactive about implementing standards in order to prevent student injury.

As an education and child supervision expert, I begin my review and analysis of the issues of a case by identifying standards in the field — those mandated by law, or statutory standards, those set forth by oversight authorities as well as the customary professional practice of the school, summer camp or daycare — and then determine whether they met those standards. If my review and analysis demonstrates that standards were not met, then the next step is to consider whether a breach of one or more standards was a proximate cause of alleged student injury. Determining whether a risk of injury exists is, in part, assessed by ascertaining whether compliance with standards is met. For example, although there may not be standards mandated by law for camps that offer swimming as part of their programs, the American Camping Association, an oversight authority, specifies minimum requirements for a lifeguard. Meeting this standard requires a minimum level of training for the lifeguard and also certification. If the camp employs a lifeguard who does not meet these requirements, there is an inherent risk of student injury since the lifeguard was not trained to receive the certification.

Federal statutes, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), require that schools provide a certain level of programs and services for children with disabilities so that children can benefit from their education. Regulations implemented for IDEA specify that schools must develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a child with a disability and that the IEP be reasonably calculated for the child to benefit from his or her education. This, then, becomes a standard of care for comparing how the school met or failed to meet the needs of a particular child. If a child displays significant behavior issues, then the statute requires the school to conduct a behavior assessment and develop a behavior plan to be followed by school employees. Failure to develop an appropriate and reasonable behavior plan as part of an IEP for a child with behavioral problems and failure to train teachers in its implementation may be considered a breach of the professional standard of care. If a plaintiff became seriously injured in a fight with the student who exhibited behavioral issues, and if the school had notice of the student’s aggressive behavior but failed to address it through the IEP, the school may be held liable for breach of the professional standard of care and student injury.

Schools must develop policies to guide their operations, to provide educational services for students, to develop curriculum and to supervise teachers, all for the end result of providing education in a safe environment. Schools have policies that reflect their staff’s responsibility to report child abuse, how to implement the student code of conduct and how to curb hazing in athletics. For example, every state requires local school boards to develop and implement a policy to address school bullying. This becomes another source of the standard of professional care. If a student was identified as one who had bullied others and later seriously injures a student in a fight, one of the questions to be asked is: Did the school meet the professional standard of care required by state statute and by its own policy? Is there a nexus between any breach of care and the student injury? If the school did not have a policy to address bullying or if the policy in place failed to meet key components of state statute such as staff training requirements, those breaches may be a proximate cause of student injury.

 

Student Injury Lawsuits and Professional Standards of Care

Professional standards set the backdrop for case review and analysis. At the top of the list are regulatory requirements in the form of statute, regulation, and licensing standards. In cases involving the death or serious student injury, these are first standards I identify. For example, if the state of Delaware requires that the ratio of certified, trained adults to three-year-olds in a childcare program is one adult for every five children, then that becomes one of the standards. I determine whether the daycare acted within the professional standard of care and whether its actions were appropriate and reasonable under the specific circumstances. If, as an example, a child climbed on top of a table in a classroom, stood up, and was pushed off by another student, I determine how many children were under the care and supervision of the teacher at that time. If the teacher was responsible for 15 students when the injury occurred but the law says there were only to be five students, then one of my opinions might be that the breach of this professional standard of care was a proximate cause of student injury.

Next in line are the policies of the school, summer camp, daycare or other agency responsible for the care of children. In most cases, these policies mirror federal and state statutes and regulations, but sometimes they go beyond them. When the school develops its policies, those policies become part of the professional standard of care as expressed by that school, and the school can be held to compliance with them. In addition, other standards may apply, information contained in parent and staff handbooks. The school must comply with the standards in these documents if it is to demonstrate that it met the professional standard of care.

In some situations, beyond school policy, there may be unpublished standards — “unwritten rules” — that have been developed over time by the school administration. This component becomes another layer of standards and often is difficult to address because it is considered custom and practice within a single school or agency. It becomes difficult to argue against or to defend because in some cases these customs may run counter to professional standards of care. For example, a principal has developed a policy that, when a student misbehaves in the cafeteria, she brings that student to her office to sit out the lunch time. During the time the student is in the principal’s office the principal talks with the student about his behavior. The principal has done this for three years and there has never been a question. This became an unwritten rule, an unpublished standard and practice beyond school policy. However, official policy requires the principal to complete a referral form for the school counselor and the counselor is expected to meet with the student. On one occasion, after several disciplinary issues occurring in the cafeteria, and meeting with the principal in her office, this student attacked a classmate at the end of the school day. A thorough review of the school policies will include the standard developed by the principal which, in this case, was contradictory to official school policy. Although counseling this student in the principal’s office might be shown to have been somewhat reasonable, counseling with the school counselor as per written school policy might have avoided the aggressive behavior and prevented student injury.

 

Professional Standard and School Liability

The appropriate and acceptable standard of care is demonstrated when a person, such as the supervisor of a child, acted reasonably and prudently in a specific circumstance. Failing to act reasonably and prudently may be a proximate cause of student injury. Compliance with standards alone does not entitle the school to summary judgment. Some standards are not adequate for specific situations. Customary usage and practice of the industry is relevant for determining whether a standard had been met. However, such usage cannot be determinative of the standard (Marietta v. Cliffs Ridge, 385 Mic. 364, 189 N.W. 2d 208 [1971]). On the other hand, if a school failed to comply with standards, it makes evidence of improper care easier to show. For example, the required student-to-teacher ratio in a preschool program of three-year-olds is one adult to five children. A school did meet that standard but a student was injured when he ran into the corner of a table when the teacher wasn’t paying attention. Just because the school complied with the teacher-to-student ratio does not entitle it to summary judgment. Often this is argued but other relevant circumstances must be assessed such as the attention of the teachers. If the school had one teacher supervising ten students when an injury occurred, this is clearly a breach of the standard and likely will be a contributing factor to the injury of the child.

Failure to follow some standards may not be related to student injury or loss; there must be proximate cause. In some situations, the level of care promulgated by the standard may not be necessary for providing a safe environment; the standard may go beyond a minimum requirement. The reasonable and prudent professional standard is, therefore, added to the pyramid of standards of care. This standard can be assessed only by a person who is qualified through education, training and professional experience to render such an opinion.
Professional standards are the foundation for determining liability when a child is injured or killed while under the care of a school, camp daycare center, or other agency entrusted with child safety. The many layers of standards, whether these standards were followed, whether actions were appropriate under the circumstances, and whether an action or lack of action was a proximate cause of injury or death weave a complex web in any determination of liability.

Student Injury Liability and Emergency Response in Schools for Children with Medical Conditions

Pediatrician doctor bandaging child's leg. Mother holding baby in her hands. Close-up.

Schools have a duty to know about a child’s critical health condition to prevent student injury.

Many school-aged children have medical conditions about which teachers, nurses, and others who are responsible for their health, safety, and well-being should know. If not addressed in the right way by administrators, teachers, or other officials, these conditions can result in a catastrophic incident, student injury and not to mention costly litigation. A student with a known heart defect, for instance, is vulnerable in a physical education class if the teacher is not informed of the child’s condition and does not institute appropriate precautions or prepared to respond in a medical emergency. If cafeteria personnel in a daycare center know that a child has a peanut allergy but fail to supervise the child appropriately, the child can go into shock if she is allowed to sit at a table where another student is eating peanut butter. In situations like these, if a plan for the child’s care was either not in place or developed but not communicated to the staff, the child might suffer irreparable harm — or even die.

Schools (and this is applicable as well to other agencies responsible for supervising children, such as daycare centers and summer camps) have a duty to know about a child’s critical health condition. Having this knowledge requires them to develop adequate plans for the child’s daily routines and allows all appropriate staff to plan for a quick and effective response to an emergency when necessary. Armed with as much information about the child as possible, the school can protect itself from liability by being aware of foreseeable harm to a child in specific situations — be they in class, on the playground, or on a class trip — and by instructing staff about a child’s special supervisory needs.

 

Duty to know, plan, inform, and execute a plan to prevent student injury

A school has a professional duty to collect as much health information about the children in its care as possible. Typically, before a child is admitted, parents complete a health form soliciting information about any chronic illnesses, allergies, or other conditions that the staff should know. The plan that is eventually developed for addressing the special health needs of a child is only as good as the information provided by the parent. In some situations, a parent might not provide full information that might be critical for protecting the child’s safety and health. If sections of the form are left blank, it is the school’s responsibility to follow up and ask for it to be completed in full. This is both necessary for the child to get the full benefit of his education, and critical so that staff may be informed of specific considerations that can mean the difference between life and death of a child and prevent possible student injury.

Some students have a sustained or temporary medical condition that interferes with their ability to fully benefit from their educational program. For example, a student who recently had knee-replacement surgery will not immediately be able to climb the steps to get to her science class. This temporary disability requires a Section 504 plan, which differs from an Individualized Education Plan in that it does not involve special education services. Required as part of the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a Section 504 plan is commonly instituted to provide accommodations for students who have a broken leg or other acute conditions, or who are undergoing disabling treatments, such as chemotherapy, on a limited-time basis. For the student who underwent knee surgery, a 504 plan could indicate, for instance, that she is allowed to use an elevator that is off limits to others to be able to get to her science class. This plan is developed with the parent, the student, and the school nurse or others as appropriate, depending on the condition. School staff should be informed of the plan, and its implementation should be monitored on a regular basis.

If the school fails to develop such a plan or fails to assure that it is fully implemented, it could be liable for further injury to the child. In a similar case in which I was engaged as the child-safety expert witness, the plaintiff sued for damages based on the school’s failure to implement the plan. The elevator was not working on several days, forcing the student to climb the steps to the second floor. One day, she fell and re-injured her knee. Once there is recognition of the need for an accommodation, the school is obligated to assure it is available and, as in this case, that equipment is fully functioning.

 

Caring for children with special healthcare needs

In the journal Pediatrics (102:137–140), McPherson et al define children with special healthcare needs as “those who have or are at increased risk for a chronic physical, developmental, behavioral, or emotional condition and who also require health and related services of a type or amount beyond that required by children generally.” Special healthcare needs can include asthma, diabetes, cerebral palsy, bleeding disorders, metabolic problems, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, seizure disorder, sensory disorders, autism, severe allergy, immune deficiencies, or many other conditions. Some require daily treatments, while others require only observation for signs of impending illness and the ability of caregivers to respond in a timely manner.

As with acute conditions, a collaborative approach involving parents, the child’s healthcare provider, teachers, and the school nurse is important for protecting the child’s health, safety, and well-being and to protect the school from liability. Development of a healthcare plan that includes critical background information about the child and his special healthcare needs, how all staff will be informed about the need, and how staff will be trained to respond to an emergency will help to protect the child from harm and the school from potential liability.

 

When is a school or child care agency held liable?

In many cases for which I have been engaged as the school liability expert witness, I have found that the school or childcare facility had no knowledge of a special healthcare need, nor was there a care plan in place. In one case, for instance, the parent of a child who died after running two miles in physical education class failed to inform the school of the child’s chronic heart condition. This condition restricted him from such activity. Without this information, the school was correct in treating the student like every other sixth grader, including him in the activities of the physical education class.

In some other cases, the school had a plan but it wasn’t adequate, wasn’t monitored, and the staff was unaware of the information in it — placing a child at risk of a life-threatening event or death. In one such case, a fourth- and fifth-grade physical education teacher instructed her students to go onto the field, run three laps amounting to approximately a mile, and return to the gym. One of the girls who ran the laps then entered the gym, walked halfway across the floor, and collapsed. It turned out that at the beginning of the school year, the parent completed a standard medical form noting that her daughter had a heart condition, was under the care of a pediatric cardiologist, and was restricted from sustained exertion — but the nurse simply filed this information away in her office. The nurse failed to alert any teachers — including the physical education teacher, in whose course the student would most likely encounter difficulty. The physical education teacher, in my opinion, was not at fault because she had no notice of the girl’s health problem and restrictions. Expecting the children to run the course was reasonable and was included in the course outline, and she had no reason to exempt this child. However, it was also my opinion that the school breached the professional standard of care when the nurse, having notice of the student’s chronic medical condition and restrictions, failed to inform the teachers, especially the physical education teacher. Unfortunately, the student did not recover, and the school withstood protracted wrongful-death litigation.

 

Implementing a plan to avoid life-threatening events

Any child who meets the criteria for having special healthcare needs and who presents an increased risk for a serious health event or death should have a routine- and emergent-care plan completed by their primary care provider. It is important that the assessment of the primary care provider include significant physical findings so that caregivers and teachers can develop a plan. An emergency-management plan also should list activities or services that are restricted or that differ from those typical of most children, and it should include specific instructions on how to provide medications, procedures, or implement modifications or emergent care. If these instructions are not clear and if the school requires further information, it is appropriate to ask the parent for permission to consult with the medical provider to ensure that the student receives proper care.

Every school employee, including teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, custodians, and others, should be informed about the special healthcare needs of every child in the facility. One person, preferably the nurse or another designated person, should serve as the funnel for this information and as the person responsible for the development of a healthcare plan, training of staff, and follow-up with parents and the child’s healthcare provider. The staff nurse has a professional duty to understand the unique health issues of a child, transmit that information to all staff, monitor the child’s health, and ensure that any equipment that may have to be used in an emergency situation involving this child is accessible, working, and can be used by others if necessary to save a child’s life.

Often this fails to happen, as in the case of a high school student who collapsed in gym class. The teacher sent another student to the nurse’s office to let her know what happened. The nurse arrived and reached for a defibrillator that was buried in a supply closet, still in the original box it was shipped in. She brought it to the gym only to discover that the battery was not charged and the device was useless. The student died because he was not treated in time. The school and nurse were sued for gross negligence. As the expert witness in this case, it was my opinion that the school administration breached the professional standard of care when it failed to assure that the defibrillator was operable and not locked in an inaccessible area. By failing to make the defibrillator accessible and in proper working order, the nurse acted in deliberate disregard for the health, safety, and well-being of the children in her care, including this child.

To reach an opinion as to whether a school met the professional standard of care, my review and analysis answers, among other questions, whether it acted appropriately and reasonably under the circumstances. These circumstances are always unique to each case and include whether the agency had a duty to develop and implement certain policies and procedures imposed by the state or licensing or accrediting authority. If, for instance, the school had a duty to develop a policy requiring health care screenings of all incoming students but the school failed to have such a policy in place, then it breached that duty and failed to adhere to the professional standard of care. Whether this failure proves to be a substantial cause of injury, health episode, or death is considered in light of the totality of the circumstances. Other standards that I examine include hiring, training, and informing competent staff; maintaining emergency equipment; and updating emergency contact information. If it can be demonstrated that there was a failure to act within the professional standard of care with regard to these and other specifics — and that failure is a proximate cause for serious injury, health episode, or death — the school or agency may be held liable.

On the other hand, my review might reveal that the school or other child care agency did everything to protect the health, safety and well-being of children: It hired competent staff, obtained critical health information about the child, maintained its emergency equipment, and otherwise fulfilled the professional standard of care — but a specific child’s medical condition was not made known by the child’s parent or physician, preventing the school from acting on that information. In cases such as these, when the child suffered a catastrophic event, the school may not be held liable.

 

Conclusion
Protecting the health, safety, and well-being of children entrusted to the care of staff in schools, daycare centers, camps, and other facilities falls within the professional standard of care for such agencies. How they implement this standard and whether they act appropriately and reasonably under specific circumstances determines liability. When an agency knows of the special healthcare needs of a child, develops a plan to address the need, informs staff of the issue, provides an emergency plan of action, maintains its emergency equipment, and takes any other steps necessary to protect the child, it will have met its professional standard of care. Without taking these steps, the school or agency may be held liable for a child’s injury, catastrophic health episode or death. If the agency had no knowledge of, or reasonably could not have known, of a child’s special healthcare needs, then the agency is unlikely to be held liable.

Assessment of Liability: Child Abuse and Injury in Residential Care

Residential School LiabilityIn my profession as an education administration and student supervision expert, I have observed that residential schools and boarding schools present a higher duty than day schools to supervise children and a greater opportunity for the school to be found liable for child abuse and injury. When children are living and learning in a program 24/7, staff must demonstrate not only a professional standard of care, but also a reasonable and prudent parent standard of care. Although related, these standards are distinct and must be appropriately and reasonably applied in a setting where staff serves as surrogate parents and others serve as teachers, counselors, and psychologists. When a child is sexually assaulted, administered unnecessary corporal punishment, or is injured or dies in a residential school, both of these standards need to be addressed.

Residential programs, particularly in large institutional settings, carry inherent risks to children, including the number of staff in positions of authority who interact with children, development of institutional norms that may be different from those in the broader community, and a tendency toward closed communication systems where information is kept within the institution. In the field of education administration and supervision, certain standards guide the care and protection of children in order to prevent child abuse and provide adequate care. These standards are greater than those of a reasonable parent or the general public to ensure that risks involved in the care and education of children are appropriately assessed and are inclusive of ways to address those risks. Within this framework, it is essential to develop appropriate policies, regulations, and procedures that ensure that standards of behavior follow applicable state and federal laws and to carry them out. At a minimum, policies, regulations, and procedures should ensure that:

  • Students know what constitutes unacceptable behavior and how to recognize it
  • Policies and procedures for reporting mistreatment and child abuse are established and made known to students, parents, and staff, and that parents can feel confident that complaints will be addressed appropriately
  • Students and parents participate in the development and review of a plan of care
  • Staff selection, supervision, and training ensures that staff has the knowledge and skills necessary to care for students and meet their needs
  • Accountability processes are in place to monitor whether students’ care needs are being met and that policies and procedures are implemented
  • Student care practices are consistent with established standards and policies
  • Students regularly participate in community activities and that community members are involved in school activities

Reasonable and prudent parent standard

California’s Welfare and Institutions Code (sections 362.04 and 362.05) defines the “reasonable and prudent parent standard” as careful and sensible parental decisions that maintain the child’s health, safety, and best interests. The goal of the reasonable and prudent parent standard is to:

  • Provide the youth with a “normal” life experience in out-of-home care
  • Empower the out-of-home caregiver to encourage youth to engage in extracurricular activities that promote child well-being
  • Allow for reasonable parenting decisions to be made by the out-of-home caregiver without waiting to obtain approval from a social worker or institution
  • Remove barriers to recruitment and retention of high-quality foster caregivers
  • Reduce the need for social workers to either give permission or obtain Juvenile Court approval for reasonable caregiving activities
  • Respect the rights of youth in out-of-home care

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Children, Youth, and Families uses a similar definition of the standard, while adding recognition of the need to “encourage the child’s emotional and developmental growth.”

While there are many definitions for what would be considered a reasonable and prudent parent standard, the general concept is that parents are often — if not daily — faced with decisions about their children’s care that involve judgment. Parents who are both reasonable and prudent will make decisions carefully, weighing the benefits and potential risks to come to a sensible decision that is in the best interest of the child.

Professionals who care for children in their custody have a duty to meet the same standard, but also have a higher duty to meet the standards of a reasonable professional. The reasonable professional standard of care includes ethical or legal responsibility to exercise the level of care, diligence, and skill prescribed in the code of practice of his or her profession.

The professional standard of care with regard to the supervision of children in both day schools and residential and boarding schools is that staff act appropriately and reasonably under the circumstance to protect children from harm, that the school develop and implement policies to implement and oversee supervision, and that the staff be appropriately hired, supervised, and trained.

Standard of care for residential and boarding schools

Both the reasonable and prudent parent standard and the professional standard of care are applicable in residential and boarding school settings.

When an institution is established by a government, or when a boarding school program is established by a private board or an individual, the government or board should assure that, at the very minimum, the reasonable and prudent parent standard is met and that adequate programs, services, and student supervision are in place to maintain and protect their health, safety, and well-being. The professional standard includes every aspect of the reasonable and prudent parent standard in addition to ensuring that an adequate infrastructure is established to operate a residential or boarding school. Infrastructure means developing and implementing policies, procedures, and regulations that address such activities as: hiring, supervision, retention and training of staff; staff discipline; development of programs and services for students according to their needs; student supervision and discipline; administration; human resource planning; development and implementation of training and investigation of complaints; and follow-up on issues that can cause foreseeable harm to students. This infrastructure enables a residential or boarding school to meet both the reasonable and prudent parent standard and the professional standard of care.

When applying the reasonable and prudent parent standard, schools and other institutions that care for and supervise children have a greater responsibility than parents. For example, a parent of a child with multiple disabilities living at home requires certain necessities, such as adequate shelter, nutrition, health care, a safe environment, a caregiver while parents are working, and other services that provide for the child’s adequate supervision and protection. Before these necessities can be provided, certain family systems that allow for such care to be provided must be in place. These systems include income for providing a home, food and clothing, and adult collaboration. Here, in addition to the systems necessary to meet the reasonable and prudent parent standard, the professional standard of care is added. This standard is defined by the level of care, diligence, and skill prescribed in the code of practice for the profession; by the person’s education, training, and professional experience; and by how other professionals in the same discipline would behave in the same or similar circumstances.

Residential and boarding school personnel act in loco parentis to educate and care for children who are not living at home. As such, these institutions should meet the reasonable and prudent parent standard and, because professionals are responsible for students in the residences, the professional standard of care applies as well. Based on my professional experience, identifying children with specific disabilities who are not able to receive adequate services at home with their parents or in their local school, and placing them in a location where professionals with specialized education and training are more able to provide necessary care and education, is the standard of care.

Expert role in assessing standards of care

As an education administration and student supervision expert witness, I am called to assess and analyze whether applicable standards of care were met in lawsuits involving injury, death, child abuse or sexual abuse of students attending residential school programs. To make that analysis, I conduct an extensive review of documents, including policies and procedures for hiring and supervision of staff and supervision of children in residential and boarding schools.

In the case of child abuse, sexual abuse, death, or serious injury, it must be determined whether the agency, through its administration and/or other employees, acted within the reasonable and prudent standard of care and within the professional standard of care. Policies and procedures must be reflective of the nature of children in general and, specifically, the nature of children attending the residential or boarding school. For example, if the facility educates and provides psychological assistance to children who are chronic sex offenders, it makes sense that the school develop and implement policies that address staff training in the prevention, identification, and reporting of sexual abuse. Such a facility would also be expected to have and enforce policies that provide a high level of line-of-sight and close supervision of children during the day and, especially, during such less-supervised times as evening and bedtime. If a child is sexually abused in a residential center that does not develop and implement appropriate policies that consider the nature of children in its care, that facility might be found negligent.

Many times, I find during a case review that the residential or boarding school failed to develop policies and supervise or appropriately train its staff — creating a situation where students with a propensity for disruptive behavior or sexual acting out are able to do so. When a student in a residential or boarding school is known to be overly interested in sexual matters or has inappropriately acted on those interests, this requires staff to consider a higher level of supervision for that student than typically provided to others in the facility. This is because there is a certain level of foreseeability that the student’s sexual acting out may place other students in danger of harm. When an agency has notice of a child’s propensities but fails to adequately inform and train staff and provide appropriate supervision, this is a breach of the professional standard of care that may place the health, safety, and well-being of children at risk. Failure to develop and implement appropriate policies and supervisory systems may be a proximate cause of harm to a child, resulting in costly litigation.

Real case examples

In many cases I have examined, schools have made claims to suggest that they are sensitive to the needs of vulnerable youth they serve, and that these children’s needs will be addressed in a way that protects their health, safety, and well-being. A boarding school in Vermont that advertised that, for more than 30 years, it had worked with boys who face dyslexia and related language-based learning challenges. Approximately 50 students from grades 6 through 12 who attend this school during the day live on campus. A residential school in New York had 12 cottages for housing “at-risk” boys between the ages of 6 and 20. Each cottage housed between 9 and 16 students. This school stated that it is staffed 24/7 with professionals experienced in helping children deal with anger, feelings of loss, and educational failure. According to the information packets of both schools, an important part of life is that the schools offer a structure that helps residents feel safe. Another boarding school for teens who are in trouble with the law or having substance abuse issues offered year-round enrollment for girls and boys ages 13-17. A military, special-needs boarding school in Canada that enrolled 125 students offered specialized programs for children in grades 6 to 12. And a sport-oriented boarding school in Canada stated that it’s important for their student-athletes to have parent-like advisors while living away from home.

The accommodations promoted by each of these schools suggest that they have the infrastructure to meet both the reasonable and prudent parent standard and the professional standard of care. In cases involving some of these facilities, however, it was my professional opinion that breaches in these standards contributed to student injury and/or constituted child abuse.

In a residential program for troubled boys, a student crawled out a window to a flat roof and attempted to jump across a gap to another roof. He fell 20 feet, resulting in serious injury. In a boarding school for girls, a staff member caught two girls kissing but didn’t investigate, interview them, or recommend counseling. A few weeks later, the aggressor raped her target. In another school, an older boy left his room, crossed the hallway, and entered the room of another student. He proceeded to sexually abuse the student while staff was to be posted in the hall to check rooms every 15 minutes. My review of this case revealed that staff was not present as they were supposed to be.
When a child is abused, injured, sexually abused, or dies under the supervision of staff at a residential or boarding school, the review is focused on two standards: the reasonable and prudent parent standard — because children in these settings are in a substitute home with substitute “parents” — and the professional standard of care required of educated and trained professionals in these settings. Although day schools must meet the professional standard of care, the reasonable and prudent parent standard is not typically applied in these settings. Children in day schools must be supervised according to the professional standard of care under the circumstance, whereas children who live at a residential or boarding school must also be supervised to the reasonable and prudent parent standard.

Liability in Child Injury Cases at Non-School Programs

Personal Child InjuryIn settings where children are supervised by adults, we often think about traditional settings, such as schools and summer camps. But these are not the only places where children participate in activities that require adult supervision and which can result in child injury cases. Some nontraditional settings include resort and vacation day care programs, community recreation centers, church-sponsored events, and Boy and Girl Scout activities, among others.

In these and other nontraditional settings, when children are involved and adult supervision is required, the organization has a duty to protect the children. Breach of that duty may extend beyond inadequate supervision or lack of supervision; staff and volunteers must be appropriately trained, and rules and regulations must be considered. If a plaintiff can show that poor supervision, inadequate training, or a lack of rules and regulations is a proximate cause of a child’s injury, the organization may be liable for child injury cases.

Importance of Training and Supervision Standards in Child Injury Cases

Schools and summer camps hire certified and trained employees, and they generally provide additional staff training in supervisory methods related to the age of the children and the activities in which they participate. Schools and camps also have formal child supervision policies and procedures, and they evaluate staff on their supervisory performance. Beyond schools and camps, however, many organizations with supervisory responsibilities for children are often much less rigorous in their methods.

Most frequently, these organizations do not have written policies and don’t provide training on how to keep kids safe from harm. Few provide adequate staff training and child supervision. These are often the elements that plaintiff will address in a lawsuit claiming negligence. Regardless of the organization, once it sponsors an activity involving children, it is responsible for their safety, which is incrementally enhanced with the level of appropriate training and supervision. In child injury cases in programmatic situations, approximately 80 percent of plaintiffs’ allegations involve negligent supervision.

Volunteers become an integral part of the work of most not-for-profit organizations and often fill a gap when paid employees are not available. At many organizations that provide services for children, volunteers conduct countless tasks. Churches often see themselves as “families” and sometimes may overlook the importance of training or supervisory functions of Sunday school teachers or of parents who organize and conduct activities such as Friday evening scavenger hunt. But all volunteers need adequate training.

For these organizations, external resources are available. GuideOne Insurance, for instance, offers SafeChurch training programs that provide church workers and volunteers important knowledge about potentially significant safety risks. These programs cover facility safety, transportation safeguards, and other categories. The company also provides informational resources about child abuse prevention, daycare and nursery safety, and playground safety.

To protect themselves from potential liability in child injury cases, many churches and other volunteer organizations have policies addressing the hiring of paid staff and the engagement of volunteers who work with and supervise children. For example, the Archdiocese of Baltimore requires each volunteer who has substantial contact with children at a parish or school to complete an application. Three references are provided, checked, and documented. A criminal history screening is conducted, and the volunteer must participate in training about child abuse and the protection of children. The archdiocese uses a compliance management system to track completion of these requirements.

Cruise ships offer an example of a nontraditional supervisory setting involving paid employees. Many cruise lines offer programs that provide young passengers an opportunity to explore art, play games, and to get acquainted with other children. Holland America Line, for instance, offers children’s programs during the day so that their parents can be on their own for a period of time. Most programming is during sea days, with late-night group babysitting available on some ships for a fee. On Carnival Cruise Lines, Camp Carnival is a fleetwide program for children who are 2 to 11 years old. Carnival also offers separate programs for children aged 12–14 and those 15–17.

These programs and others such as dance studios, karate centers, gym daycares, township recreational programs etc. are essentially the same in terms of duty as those provided in school and by other organizations, and the people responsible for children in their care have a duty to supervise them appropriately in order to protect them from harm. Cruise lines that offer youth programs generally accept all children who are potty-trained and meet the minimum age requirements, without knowing anything more about the child or his or her history of behavior. What parents don’t typically realize is that the cruise line can be held liable for child injury when supervision of these children is negligent.

Parents have a “contract” with caregivers and teachers to supervise and protect their children. In a child injury case for which I was engaged as the child supervision expert witness, a parent left his 7-year-old son in an afternoon program on a cruise ship, where about two dozen other children ranging in age from 7 to 10 participated in arts and crafts projects, a sing-a-long, snack time, and a nap. During nap time, when children were lying on mats on the floor and covered with light blankets, a 10-year-old moved over to the 7-year-old and sexually assaulted him. Testimony from other children in the room was that the person who was to have been supervising stepped out on deck to talk with another ship employee, leaving the children unsupervised for several minutes.

Determining duty was not an issue. Because the parent entered into a “contract” with the supervisor, and essentially the cruise line, that his child would be safe, the cruise line had a duty to protect. That duty required that a responsible adult be present to oversee the children during nap time and to intervene if any behavior on the part of a child might cause injury to another child. The program did have a policy that during nap time, floor mats were to be kept at least 18 inches from each other. This policy was practical, but it did not prevent a child from sexually abusing another. The only thing that would have prevented this was diligent supervision by a competent adult employee. Because the supervisor was not in the room for a significant amount of time, the opportunity arose for the 10-year-old to sexually assault the younger child.

Negligent supervision of children or lack of training for adults — be they paid staff or volunteers — may not necessarily create liability for an organization if a child is injured physically, is sexually assaulted, or dies while in the care of an organization. In child injury cases plaintiff must show that inadequate supervision or training is the proximate cause of the incident. The competence and training of the person supervising, the location of the supervisor at the time of injury, and the number of supervisors on duty are key elements in determining liability. The age and abilities of the child and the foreseeable dangers in the location of an activity are additional factors when determining liability.

Importance of Adequate Policies and Procedures in Child Injury Cases

As with schools, daycare centers, and summer camps, nontraditional organizations must consider policies and regulations when children are involved and supervised by adults. There are rules that may be developed into written policies made by the organization’s governing body; rules that are operational in nature, made by administrative and supervisory personnel; those that are considered ministerial acts for which there usually is liability; and rules of a specific activity that the children are engaged in, such as baseball, karate, or even crossing the street as a group. At this level, the supervisor or the person in charge of the conduct of the activity is required to see that the rules are followed.

The overriding assumption is that rules are developed to provide for the safety and protection of children, and that if they are not enforced, there is a greater possibility that a child will become injured during the activity. However, while there may be a duty to establish rules and regulations — either by statute or by virtue of a potentially dangerous situation — the mere fact that there were no rules or regulations is not negligence per se in child injury cases. As with lack of supervision, lack of rules and regulations must be the proximate cause of the injury.

One of the key responsibilities of supervision in any child-centered organization is to identify dangerous conditions or activities and then either warn of the condition or stop the activity. The supervisor must take appropriate action — and possibly create the rules on the spot — for the protection of the children. Duty to warn contemplates opportunity to know of danger (actual or constructive notice) and to have time to communicate it. Two children colliding while running on the playground may not rise to the level of negligent supervision in a summer camp because it’s not unusual for 6- and 7-year olds to run during recess on the playground. This would not be considered a dangerous condition or activity for which the counselor would need to warn or stop. On the other hand, when children are throwing rocks at each other, the supervisor has a duty to end the behavior and to warn children of the danger that someone can become seriously hurt. Then, the supervisor needs to keep diligent watch over the children and the area to ensure that the activity doesn’t reoccur. A supervisor should also prevent children from using defective equipment that would cause an activity to become dangerous. This might include a hazardous condition on the playground, unsteady gymnastic equipment, or a karate mat that has lost its padding.

Conclusion

The standard of care owed to children who participate in organization-sponsored activities must be consistent with legal standards and the standards of a reasonable person under the circumstances. In order to fulfill their mandate to see to the safety of children, nontraditional agencies that provide services for children need to know the requirements for reasonable and prudent operations. Anticipating dangers and correcting for them by warning participants and eliminating the dangers will help to protect children from harm. Training supervisors to keep an eye on children at all times and to anticipate that children don’t always act the way one might expect — they might run into the street or throw a rock at another child, for instance — will help protect children and the organization.

The standards by which nontraditional organizations operate are not always clear-cut. The methodical and systematized practice of safety education within the agency until all employees and volunteers are thoroughly educated and habitually perform their functions with safety as the uppermost concern will go a long way toward protecting children from harm and protecting the organization from costly litigation for child injury cases.

School Premises Liability: Maintaining School Grounds to Keep Students Safe

Keeping children safe in schools, preschool and daycare programs, summer camps, on playgrounds, and other locations is a primary responsibility of those who administer such programs. When a child becomes injured and the claim is negligent supervision, a school or other agency will have a greater chance of prevailing when it has clear policies and enforces them. In school premises liability lawsuits plaintiffs are more likely to prevail when a facility fails to maintain its campus and equipment, does not have a regular inspection plan, and does not instruct and supervise students in the safe and appropriate use of equipment. The greatest deterrent to litigation with respect to premises and equipment liability is to keep the building and grounds free from hazards, maintain them on a regular basis, and ensure that that equipment is safe and properly installed, used, and maintained.

School Policies and School Premises Liability

In-house policies become the standard by which schools and other agencies assure the health, safety, and wellbeing of children. These policies mirror professional standards of care in the field as well as federal, state, and local standards. Development and implementation of policies that address circumstances that may give rise to a child’s injury are important components of a defense against school premises liability. Equally important, these policies should be enforced.

For example, electronic equipment in a classroom is often plugged into power strips. Young children are curious. They like to explore how things work. Children have been shocked when a staff member did not cover unused outlets on a strip. Even if the administration has no knowledge of a teacher using a power strip, a policy prohibiting their use without the express permission of the administration gives the administration control. If a teacher ignores the policy, uses a power strip in the classroom, and a child is injured by it, the school might argue that it had the appropriate policy but the teacher failed to follow it.

The existence of a policy alone, and even communicating it to staff, however, might not be enough to persuade a jury that the school had done all it could to prevent injury. The plaintiff might be able to demonstrate that the policy stated that regular inspections would take place during the school year but, in this case, none were completed. The question might then arise: Had inspections been conducted as required by policy, and had the power strip been removed from the classroom in an inspection, would the child have been injured? Having a written policy without enforcing it will not strengthen a defendant’s position.

Maintaining School Grounds to Avoid School Premises Liability Lawsuits

When a child is injured after falling 10 feet from a playground slide to the unpadded ground below, the injured party may claim that the school or camp failed to maintain safe premises or breached a safety standard. Did the school allow the play area to become unsafe by not replacing a shock-absorbing surface that washed away over time? This is an example of a maintenance issue that required attention, lead to an injury and left the school vulnerable to potential school premises liability lawsuits. Defective equipment and unsafe premises cause untold litigation expenses in the United States and Canada.

When children are involved, a majority of defective-equipment allegations involve playground equipment. In a case of a 4-year-old who badly mangled his finger on a merry-go-round (Fetters v. City of Des Moines), the plaintiff alleged that the merry-go-round was defective because of improper maintenance. In another case involving negligent maintenance (Rich v. City of Goldsboro), the plaintiff was thrown from a see-saw that was worn and wobbly and that lacked handholds or stabilizing devices. In fact, nearly every time a plaintiff’s allegation of defective equipment prevails, the proximate cause is failure to adequately maintain equipment.

An inspection system is the most important component of maintaining safe premises and for managing risk. Inspections play an important role in the discovery of conditions, and “notice” is an important legal concept regarding liability for conditions of premises. Notice is information — knowledge of the existence of a situation. For example, if the head custodian learned of a missing end cap on a slide, then he or she is held to have notice of the condition.

Whenever children are around equipment of any kind — a slide on the playground, a table saw in shop class, folding tables in a cafeteria, or a pair of scissors in art class — teachers, camp counselors, and program administrators, as well as custodians and bus drivers, have a duty to ensure that equipment is always in top condition, maintained regularly, or taken out of service when in need of repair. A teacher’s job description may include a requirement to inspect and maintain equipment in the classroom on a regular basis. This requirement becomes a professional standard of care in that school — and one that can be referred to in litigation.

In a real case involving a student and a table saw, the woodshop teacher knew that a bolt was missing from the saw blade guard. Rather than referring to the manufacturer’s requirements for a replacement, he rooted through a drawer in the shop, found a bolt he assumed would hold the guard to the saw table, and replaced it. Later, when a student was using the saw, the bolt came loose, the guard jammed, and the student lost three fingers. After thousands of dollars’ worth of surgery, the student filed a lawsuit against the school and the teacher.

Did the teacher adhere to the professional standard of care? Or was the standard breached when he failed to maintain the saw, as required by his job description? Did he breach the professional standard of care when he used a bolt not approved by the manufacturer? In this situation, the teacher ignored the standard outlined in his job description and deliberately used a bolt not recommended by the manufacturer. The saw should have been taken out of service until it was properly repaired. If this school premises liability case had not settled, the school would have had to persuade a jury that even though the saw was not maintained properly and the teacher used the wrong bolt, the student was at fault. It’s unlikely a jury would have agreed.

Negligent Supervision of Students

Folding cafeteria tables that are improperly stowed, TVs atop carts incapable of supporting them, and chemicals left in reach of students all place children in harm’s way, with the foreseeability that someone could become injured. Staff must constantly supervise the premises and the use of equipment. Knowing what to be aware of in environments inhabited by children and how to safeguard children in those environments are among most important responsibilities of adults who are ultimately responsible for children’s safety.

When a potentially dangerous situation is identified, there are several alternatives:

  • Discontinue the activity. Do not allow activity in an area where children would be exposed to the danger
  • Modify the activity. Adjust the manner of play to avoid contact with the defect
  • Temporarily repair the defect and continue the activity with care. For example, a hole in a floorboard might have a temporary covering in order to protect students from injury on the spot. This may be fine in the moment, as long as students are carefully supervised, but after the activity is over, the temporary floor covering should not be left in place and considered a “fix.” Once a supervisor or administrator has notice of the hole and the temporary fix action to correct the hazard must be taken. Inaction is itself an act that can enhance the likelihood of injury for which the person is personally liable.

The court has established two types of torts: manufacture of defective products and the use of products. With respect to the latter, a suit can be brought on negligence if the user of a product is injured, regardless of whether the product has been associated with liability claims. Consider a TV cart that had been labeled dangerous by the Consumer Product Safety Commission: Its design caused it to tip over easily, but no product liability claims had been filed against the manufacturer. In one real case, a third-grade teacher instructed two students to return a TV on top of this cart to a hall closet. Being third graders, one child pushed the cart from the back while the other rode up front, placing his feet on the bottom shelf and holding onto both sides. When the child pushing the cart let go of it, the cart tipped in the direction of the student hanging off the front and the 55-pound TV struck the other student in front in the head, causing permanent injury.

A claim of negligent supervision was filed against the teacher, the principal, and the board of education. The question became: Was it appropriate and reasonable for the teacher to send the two boys, unsupervised, into the hallway to return the TV? Information the teacher knew about one of the students became another factor in this case: The boy had behavior problems and been corrected on numerous occasions. Did the teacher breach a professional standard of care by sending these students, one of whom she knew was likely to misbehave in the hallway, to take the TV to the closet?

When children are engaged in activities under supervision, the school or other agency has the responsibility for ensuring that equipment is appropriate for the child’s age, size, skill level, and general capacity, as well as how it will be used. There is also a duty to instruct the child in its proper use and dangers of misuse, and to monitor for proper use. The person instructing the child must also be alert to defective equipment. The school district has the authority to purchase and furnish equipment, but teachers have the responsibility for proper selection, inspection, and use of equipment. Legally, this is important, because if equipment is used for a purpose not in accord with its instruction, product liability is not at issue. Moreover, an injured child does not assume any risks if the equipment used is defective or improper for the activity. An improper type of jump rope, for instance, was alleged to be the cause of injury in a physical education class when an 8-year-old was injured. The 6-foot rope had wooden handles, one of which hit a student in the teeth when it was jerked from a teacher’s hand. In this case, the defendant prevailed.

Conclusion

Schools, their administration, and staff, along with adults who administer preschools daycare centers, summer camps, and similar programs have a responsibility to protect children in their care from harm in order to avoid school premises liability lawsuits and negligent supervision of students claims. Policies that set standards for ensuring safety and maintaining the building, grounds, and equipment are a start, but those policies must be enforced and students appropriately supervised during activities, especially ones including specific equipment. Negligent maintenance and failure to supervise children in the proper use of equipment are common reasons policies fail and can lead to conditions that give rise to student injury and school liability lawsuits. School and agencies should take every reasonable step to avoid these potentially costly traps.