May 28, 2017

Student Sports Injury and School Liability

Sports Injury Liability

Nationwide, 7.6 million students participate in interscholastic athletics, according to U.S. News and World Report. Keeping them safe is critically important to avoid school liability and sports injury lawsuits. And when sports injury occurs, schools may be found responsible if they failed to take reasonable precautions and supervision of students in order to prevent sports injury. Parents send their children to school with the implicit expectation that schools will do whatever is necessary to keep them safe whether in the classroom or on the football field.

Although there is inherent risk in athletic competition, parents rightly expect that coaches will take reasonable and proactive measures to protect student athletes from harm. In the vast majority of cases, coaches do exercise prudent judgment and care. Sometimes, though, coaches are careless or deliberately indifferent, thereby jeopardizing the health and safety of the athletes under their care. Many states have very strict immunity laws protecting schools and coaches for acts of negligence. However, a careful analysis of the actions and inactions taken by coaches that caused injury to an athlete can be introduced by a plaintiff in order to overcome immunity claims by schools.  

 

Policies and Training of Coaching Staff are Key to Preventing Athletic Injury

As expert witnesses, we have encountered many cases in which students suffered physical or emotional sports injuries during their involvement in school athletics. Examples include instances of bullying, hazing, and sexual harassment on buses to and from interscholastic events while coaches were not paying attention. Other examples involve inappropriate behavior, physical assaults, fights, and initiation of younger team players while the coach was in his office with the door closed. Often, such behavior is excused as “boys being boys” or “kids being kids.”

A variety of circumstances on or off the field could potentially lead to personal injury of students. Unstructured practice time, unsafe premises, faulty athletic equipment, failure to follow established school policies, lack of policies, inappropriate and abusive behavior of coaches, and tolerance of such behavior are just a few examples.  Any of these circumstances may place students in situations where they can suffer sports injury, leaving schools liable for those injuries.

To avoid such situations, a school would be wise to begin with a two-step approach. The first is to develop policies that explicitly prohibit hazing and require that coaches, teachers, and anyone else in a supervisory capacity exercise proper care of students. Proper care involves appropriately supervising athletes, ensuring safe facilities, following state guidelines for interscholastic athletics, and directing students to appropriate medical care, if needed. The second step is to ensure that those responsible for carrying out those policies understand them and follow through on procedures for their implementation. It is prudent, for instance, for the athletic director to hold a preseason meeting with coaches before the start of fall, winter, and spring sports or any sports camps to advise coaches of their responsibilities. Parents and students should be invited to those meetings so that they also know the standard of care that coaches are expected to uphold and, if necessary, share their concerns with the athletic director.

 

School Liability for Unsafe School Premises and Defective Athletic Equipment

Because schools have a duty to provide safe facilities and grounds, they should periodically inspect locations where student activities are taking place. Failure to inspect school premises may be grounds for school liability. In one case in which our firm was engaged for expert witness services, a soccer player incurred serious injury during practice on the school athletic field. On several occasions, the coach and others reported to school officials that there were holes or deep depressions on the field, making the field uneven and potentially dangerous. The school did not fix the reported problem and, during practice, a student stepped into a deep depression, permanently injuring her ankle. In such situations, the school are negligent and often have actual knowledge of the dangerous conditions and deliberately ignores the notice, resulting in student sports injury.

In another case, during a softball game the center fielder’s face became stuck to the wooden outfield fence when she attempted to field a ball. As her face brushed up against the fence, a large sliver of wood entered her check, pinning her to the fence until someone came to dislodge her. Such personal injuries may be avoidable if playing facilities are regularly inspected. Upon inspection, unsafe conditions on athletic fields, gymnasiums, and related facilities must be promptly alleviated. Records of such inspections should be kept to ensure that inspections actually occur and to protect the district from a claim of an unsafe condition and school liability.

In certain situations, a school may not be responsible for the condition of its premises and the safety of others. In a 1984 case, (Begin v. Georgia Championship Wrestling, Inc., 172 Ga. App. 293, 322 S.E. 2d 737) a spectator at a wrestling exhibition was injured when her foot got stuck between two seams of plastic covering the gymnasium floor. The three-foot wide plastic strips had been placed around the wrestling ring by the school where the event was being held. The plaintiff sued the promoter of the event and not the school where it was held. The court clarified that, although the school was the sponsor of the event and employees placed the covering on the floor, the plaintiff was an invitee of Georgia Championship Wrestling, Inc., the promoter. The promoter was the occupier of the premises and, as such, is charged with the duty of keeping the premises safe for invitees even though the activity was held in the school gymnasium. An occupier of premises is under duty to inspect the premises to discover possible dangerous conditions  of which he does not know and to take reasonable precautions to protect the invitee from dangers which are foreseeable from the arrangement and use of the premises. (Prosser, Law of Torts (4th ed.) 393, 61)  

 

Coaches Should Exercise Reasonable Standard of Care to Prevent Student Sports Injury

To protect athletes, coaches should be proactive and consider everything they can do to prevent foreseeable athletic injuries. Participants in interscholastic athletics are students first and athletes second. As such, coaches are in the position of providing, at a minimum, “parental control” and must exercise judgment that a “reasonably prudent adult” would take to ensure the safety of students. That means for example, creating practice and game conditions that are safe, such as pitting athletes of equal (rather than unequal) ability against each other and modeling sportsmanship and ethical behavior.

Sometimes, coaches may be inclined to push athletes into a game situation for the sake of a win. Instead, coaches should have the attitude that the safety of student athletes is more important than wins. They should follow guidelines prescribed by their State Athletic Association regarding concussions or drink breaks, for instance. All reports of injuries should be taken seriously and medical attention provided, even if only precautionary. Many high schools today have athletic trainers available at practices, but some have trainers only at games or not at all.

The same attitude of injury prevention applies to physical education classes. Physical education teachers should routinely monitor and ensure the safety of physical education facilities and equipment. They should take all claims of injuries seriously and have students examined by the school nurse if they claim to be hurt. In our experience, many tragic injuries — and even death — have resulted from dismissing a student’s initial complaint as inconsequential.

Coaches should supervise athletes at all times — while they are in the locker room before and after practice, waiting to be picked up after practice, and any time they are on school grounds. Students are far less likely to do something inappropriate if they are properly supervised and if they know that certain behaviors are not tolerated. When coaches fail to supervise and a student is injured, the school may be held liable.

 

Schools Should Continually Monitor Athletics to Minimize Sports Injury

Finally, school administrators should ensure that coaches and physical education teachers conscientiously carry out their responsibilities. When everyone does their part, the school may avoid liability claims and costly litigation. But absence of claims is not the goal; ensuring the health and safety of student athletes is the goal. If safe conditions are in place, if coaches and physical education teachers supervise students appropriately, and if they respond to injuries quickly, then the likelihood of student athletes becoming injured will be greatly decreased — and students, parents, and the school will all benefit.

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.

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.

School Liability and High School Hazing

High School Hazing

Schools can be liable for high school hazing

School coaches have a duty to protect athletes from harm, including emotional or physical harm that may result from locker room hazing. High school hazing in athletics has many beginnings — the most prominent being an attitude of superiority among senior athletes and the belief that a weaker or younger athlete must be subjected to harassment to “make the grade” or to be “good enough” to be on the team. This mentality, if left unchecked and if students are allowed to participate in hazing behaviors, eventually can result in even more serious misconduct, such as sexual harassment and serious personal injury.

We often see the repercussions of hazing when it emerges from the locker room and finds its way into the courtroom. And it’s likely that courts will begin to see more hazing-related claims stemming from an alleged lack of appropriate student supervision.

Statutes and common law decisions reinforce the duty of school officials to exercise care to protect children from harm — a legally enforceable obligation for schools. Care is an element assessed when considering a complaint or defense involving negligence. Did the school, through its administration and/or other employees, act appropriately, reasonably, with care and within the professional standard under the circumstance? This duty refers to a responsibility to protect others from unreasonable risk of harm arising from inappropriate student interactions, including hazing. Exercising this duty begins with schools developing and implementing adequate policies against high school hazing, training coaches and students about those policies, promptly investigating complaints, appropriately supervising staff and students, and following through with consequences for violators. By doing this schools send a clear message to students and staff that hazing and other inappropriate behaviors are neither tolerated nor acceptable in school athletics.

 

High School Hazing is Harassment and Schools Can Be Liable

Recently in Sayreville, N.J., the superintendent ended the football season early in response to serious reports of locker room hazing at War Memorial High School that led to the arrests of seven student athletes and allegations of possible student-on-student sexual assault. In this case, a couple of legal repercussions will follow in response to the season’s cancellation. If a victim files a civil lawsuit against the school, the legal questions will likely examine whether hazing constitutes bullying (New Jersey’s Acting Commissioner of Education says it does) and whether the school appropriately trained its coaches to be aware of hazing and to take appropriate action to end it. Plaintiff’s attorneys may also argue negligent hiring, supervision and retention of the coaching staff, negligent supervision of students, and negligent infliction of emotional harm, among other claims. Defendant’s attorneys will likely argue that the school did everything properly in hiring and supervising coaches, that it developed and implemented appropriate policies, and that students were appropriately supervised during the time of the alleged incident. The answers will boil down to the school’s duty and whether it acted reasonably when training and supervising coaches and students, implementing its own policies, and complying with state law to protect student athletes and prevent a hostile environment from festering inside the locker room.

Schools’ perceived attitude toward the acceptance of hazing in athletics can result in costly litigation when student athletes suffer injuries inflicted by fellow students or even coaches. For example, in an Ohio case, a high school football player’s parents are suing over their teenager’s brain injuries, blaming his coaches for allegedly sanctioning a dangerous hazing ritual. According to the lawsuit, other students hit the victim as hard as they could, causing him to collapse later in the locker room — and no ambulance was called. The suit claims that the ritual required their son to take deliberate injury, in violation of his rights, and that the coaches acted under the government’s authority in ordering the intentional striking of the student. The suit also alleges that the school and coaches acted recklessly through complete failure to exercise any care to protect the student’s safety and were indifferent to the fact that his injury was a likely outcome of the violence directed toward him. Here, the plaintiff’s attorney will need to show that the state and school district had a policy defining the standard and that the school breached that standard, resulting in harm to the student. For its part, the school will need to demonstrate that policies and procedures were appropriate and reasonable, staff was hired and trained according to policy, if there was knowledge of the hazing, they took quick and appropriate action to end it.

 

Hazing Leads to Hostile School Environment

When the culture of  high school hazing becomes so accepted that even the athletes themselves may not recognize the need to report an injury, hazing, or harassing behaviors, the abuse is allowed to continue — undetected and untreated. This sad reality causes difficulty for the plaintiff’s attorney who wants to present a harassment claim alleging the school knew about inappropriate behaviors and acted deliberately indifferent to that behavior, resulting in harm to a student.

In a survey of American middle and high school students published in School Psychology International, 66 percent of bullying victims believed that school personnel responded poorly when they saw children being bullied. Kids who are bullied often don’t tell anyone, either because they think they won’t be believed or they fear retaliation. It’s not just targets of bullying and hazing who keep mum. Their peers do, too. Even though most students and athletes believe that hazing is wrong, witnesses rarely tell teachers and coaches, and they intervene only infrequently on the behalf of the child who is the target of the abuse. In fact, multiple studies suggest that only between 10 and 20 percent of noninvolved students provide any real help when another student is victimized. Student athletes worry that intervening will raise a bully’s wrath and make them the next target. They may also feel powerless to do anything about it; after all, they are peers — they are not the teacher or coach in charge of fellow students. So they tend to stand aside, watch the negative and often abusive behavior, feel confused about what to do, and internalize conflicting feelings and emotions. This raises the duty of school employees to educate and train students about hazing and how to report what they see, take time to observe and assess the environment, and take action whenever a situation might cause harm to a student — be it unsafe conditions on the playground or interactions among students in the locker room.

To promote a positive environment in locker rooms and to prevent high school hazing, it is important for schools to develop and implement an appropriate student code of conduct that includes athletes in the locker room and on the field. Hazing, specifically, must be prohibited, with strong consequences for violation. Teachers and coaches must be trained to take immediate and effective action to end hazing if it is reported or observed. Being able to demonstrate that the student code of conduct clearly addresses hazing and that teachers and coaches have been trained to take swift action will support a school in a lawsuit. School staff that consistently take immediate action and reinforce a positive school culture is the best deterrent to student harm — and the best defense in a lawsuit. Policies and training alone are not enough, however; if the school fails to show that it met its own standards, it will have difficulty defending itself against negligence and plaintiff’s attorney may be able to demonstrate that failure to act reinforced a culture of hazing that contributed to student harm.

As of the writing of this article the Middlesex County, N.J., prosecutor is conducting an investigation of the hazing and sexual abuse charges against the seven Sayreville football players; the school is waiting for the result before conducting its own investigation. There have been indications that parents will sue the school because it cancelled the football season, but these have yet to come forward. One player says he lost a college scholarship over the turn of events. Once the criminal part of the alleged harassment has been resolved, civil suits brought on by the victims will likely begin. Plaintiff and defendant attorneys should be prepared to address such issues as the coach’s duty to protect students, whether the school reasonably and appropriately trained its coaches to detect and act against hazing, whether the coach knew or should have known of hazing behavior, and what he or she did to end it — and whether any breach caused injury to the athlete.

 

Hazing and Title IX

Sayreville and similar high-profile incidents of high school hazing will likely bring many legal issues to the surface, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. When there are allegations or notice that locker room hazing involved sexual harassment, Title IX may be a viable avenue for a complaint and will complicate a review. Title IX imposes a duty on school officials to prevent sexual harassment in schools. According to U.S. Department of Education guidelines, sexual harassment occurs when a student experiences gender-based conduct by another student that is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program or activity. Sexual harassment also occurs when such activity creates a hostile or abusive educational environment. If a Title IX sexual harassment claim is attached to a claim of hazing, plaintiff and defendant attorneys will need to examine the type, frequency, and duration of the conduct; the number of individuals involved; and whether the victim suffered psychological distress — in addition to whether the school met its duty to exercise care and whether it followed its own policies and professional standards under the circumstances.