May 28, 2017

School District Liability: Duty of Care Owed to Students, Visitors, Volunteers, Trespassers and Local Agencies

Whenever children are involved in events on school premises, there is always the possibility of school district liability for incidents that happen on school grounds or at school-sponsored events. This foreseeability gives rise to a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent a child from being harmed. Public school districts may find themselves liable for injury — not only for those suffered by their own students, but also for those incurred by children who are invited onto school grounds, who attend separate programs on school grounds, and even those who are considered trespassers.

School-sponsored events, such as an after-school club, a school dance, or a daycare program run by the school board, are clearly extensions of the school. With these types of programs, the school’s safety and supervisory policies apply. If a person is hurt or is sexually assaulted during a school-sponsored or operated event, it is generally clear that school district liability will attach if there is a finding of negligence.

A school district’s liability for injuries to children on its grounds is far less clear, however, when an outside organization is involved or when an injured party was not authorized to be on campus. Schools sometimes rent or give space to organizations like the Boy Scouts, a community basketball organization, or a private dance school to provide services to the general public, students at the school, or both. Very often, outside organizations cooperate with the school to provide before- and after-school services for the school’s own students, but these programs are not directly operated by the school. Typically, schools have policies that spell out an approval process for the use of their space. However, based on some of the cases for which we have been engaged, these policies do not always go far enough — thus leaving school districts open to liability if a child involved in an activity that is run by an outside organization is injured on school grounds.

 

School District Liability When an Outside Agency or Organization is Involved

For example, one of our cases involved a school that allowed a community athletic association to use its gym. The board of education approved the application and even noted that the organization had liability insurance. One of the volunteers with the athletic association led a participant, who was also a student at the school, to the restroom — where the volunteer sexually assaulted the student. When we reviewed the facts to render an opinion as to whether this school acted within the professional standard of care, it became evident that the athletic association never trained its volunteers in the prevention, detection, and reporting of suspected child abuse. It did not have a plan for supervising its volunteers, nor did it check their backgrounds before allowing them to have contact with the children in their program.

One of the questions that arose in this case was: Did the school have a responsibility to ensure that the other organization had policies in place to reasonably protect the school’s own students from harm?

School district liability and duty of the school to the plaintiff depends upon the relationship between the plaintiff and the school, the relationship between the plaintiff and the other organization, and the relationship between the school and the other organization. Often, these relationships are complicated, and it is necessary to determine which agency had responsibility for the plaintiff’s safety at the time of the incident.

Consider the following examples:

  • A school allows one of its teachers to use the music room after school to provide private lessons. The teacher systematically lures a student into an inappropriate relationship and is accused of sexually abusing him in the school.
  • A person on the school’s grounds when not authorized suffers an injury. Even though this person would be considered a trespasser, the school may be liable under certain circumstances.
  • The parent of an athlete from an opposing wrestling team falls from the bleachers in the high school gym. Which school — if either — had responsibility for his safety?

In any of these scenarios, the school may become a defendant in a lawsuit and argue that it had no responsibility for the safety of the plaintiff.

One of our cases involved an allegation that two students sexually abused a high school girl under the bleachers during a football game. All three students were at the football field to watch the game and were allowed to be there. The plaintiff student had an implied invitation to enter the premises (the football field), and she entered for the purpose of which the invitation was extended (to watch the game). In a situation like this — all parties at a school-sponsored event were authorized to be there — the plaintiff’s attorney would need to show that the school had a duty to the student to take affirmative action to protect her from an unreasonable risk of harm.

While the school is not a guarantor of the student’s safety, it must take an affirmative action in anticipation of foreseeable injury in order to minimize school district liability. The plaintiff must show that the school knew, or should have known, that the dark area under the bleachers amounted to a defective condition, that the risk to the student could be foreseen, and that because of the school’s negligence in not correcting this condition (not illuminating the area), a student could be assaulted in that location. The defendant’s attorney, on the other hand, must show that this area of the bleachers did not constitute a defective condition, that the information known by the school would not give rise to the foreseeability of the plaintiff being sexually assaulted in that location, and that intervening variables served as proximate cause of her injury. An education administration and supervision expert witness would determine whether the school maintained its property in a reasonably safe condition and whether it reasonably supervised its property during the game.

 

Questions That Help to Determine School District Liability and Duty

When attorneys engage our firm’s services to render an opinion as to whether the school bore responsibility in specific circumstances, we review the duty owed to the plaintiff and whether the school acted reasonably, appropriately, and within the professional standard of care. Often, this analysis begins with a determination of whether the plaintiff was authorized to be on the premises (for instance, a student attending class); was invited to be on the premises (for instance, a member of a visiting football team playing a game against the home team); was a licensee by virtue of an agreement with another entity (for instance, an enrollee in a dance school); or whether the person was trespassing. With each of these classifications, a different approach is applied to the analysis of which entity was responsible for protecting the plaintiff from harm and what that responsibility involved.

When developing an opinion in such cases, our expert witness will apply his education, training, and professional experience to answer several questions: Who was the responsible agency? What policies did the agency have in place to protect individuals from harm? Did the agency apply its policies? What training was provided to the staff that was responsible for supervising children, and was the training reasonable? Did the agency meet other required standards, such as those required by licensing agencies? Did the agency vet and supervise individuals who were responsible for the safety of children?
In examining these questions, it can be determined whether the school had a duty to the plaintiff and whether that duty was breached resulting in school district liability.

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.

Title IX and Sexual Violence at Colleges and Universities

sexual violence at universitiesTitle IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program, including in colleges and universities, if those programs or activities associated with the institution receive federal funding. Under Title IX, sex discrimination includes sexual harassment, sexual battery, sexual assault, rape and other sexual violence at school, college or university campuses. Any behavior that disrupts a student’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit constitutes a violation of Title IX. Recent media coverage has brought to light the controversy over the six-month sentence for a former Stanford University student for the rape of a student on campus. There has been outrage over the sentence, and that outrage might be justified, given schools’ responsibilities in similar cases.

The Washington Post reported on June 7, 2016, that nearly 100 colleges and universities had at least 10 reports of sexual violence and rape on their main campuses in 2014, according to federal campus safety data. Brown University and the University of Connecticut tied for the highest annual total — 43 each. In our experience as education administration and supervision and Title IX expert witnesses, many, if not most, sexual offenses against students go unreported to school officials because victims and others who might know of such violations don’t know that their school has a duty to implement Title IX. Colleges and universities are required to develop, publish, and distribute policies against sex discrimination that identify and designate a trained Title IX coordinator, respond promptly to harassment and sexual violence that create a hostile environment, prevent its recurrence and address its effects, provide immediate help for the victim, and conduct an impartial investigation to determine what occurred and take appropriate action. A hostile environment exists when a situation of a discriminatory or sexual nature creates an adverse educational setting, there exists an intimidating or offensive environment that causes a person to; be fearful or there is a setting that denies, limits or interferes with a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a class, program or activity.

Laws governing schools’ responsibility and how they are to respond to complaints of sexual harassment and abuse are the “hard” elements that are reviewed when answering the question of whether the school acted reasonably within the standard of professional care in a particular circumstance. Schools might have all the appropriate policies in place, but if the culture of the institution doesn’t foster implementation of the standards, then it is not unreasonable to expect that students may be victimized. Victimization occurs first when they are abused, but a second time by the school when the administration fails to provide victim assistance, allows the alleged perpetrator and victim to be together on the same campus, and doesn’t conduct an investigation in a timely manner.

A Brown University spokeswoman told the Post that the university “works very hard to cultivate a culture of forthrightness so this traditionally underreported crime can be addressed and our students receive appropriate services and support.” The concern here is that sexual violence and crimes against students were “traditionally” underreported. One must consider the “tradition” of our educational institutions that encouraged underreporting of such crime. Another spokesman for the university suggested that the relatively high number of incidents at Brown, compared with other universities, is indicative of a culture of openness: “The fact that 43 incidents were reported indicates that we are building trust among our campus community members in how the university responds to reported incidents of sexual and gender-based violence.”

 

Title IX Policies Are Only Effective if Implemented

Many of the cases for which Education Management Consulting, LLC, is engaged to provide consultation and expert witness services require us to review the issues and render an opinion as to whether a high school, college, or university acted reasonably and within the standard of professional care. This is often the heart of the matter when a plaintiff claims that he or she suffered as a result of the school not implementing its own Title IX policies.

In one case, for example, a female college student was sexually assaulted by a basketball player in her dorm room and alleged that for six months following the assault, she was harassed and taunted by students whom the perpetrator told about the violation. Her lawsuit claimed that she was not informed of the college’s Title IX policy, her right to be protected, and how to report the behavior against her. A representative of the school knew of the assault, yet there was no report of it to any school official or the police. Because there was no report the school, authorities were not aware and had no reason to investigate. The school argued that because it had no actual knowledge of the violation, it had no responsibility for the continued harassment of the student.

Our review indicated that the school had very good policies, but those policies were not effectively transmitted to its students and staff. Very few students knew that there was a person on campus designated to enforce Title IX and did not know how to report violations on campus. When students do not understand their right to be protected from sex-based harassment, abuse, and  sexual violence, when school authorities fail to take seriously their duty to protect students from the harms of such behavior, and when violators are allowed to continue such behavior, our schools are letting down the very people they are meant to enrich and educate.

Colleges and universities, as well as elementary, middle, and high schools, exist — or should exist — for their students. Creating a climate in which students are able to learn and reach their academic, social, and emotional potential is — or should be — the primary goal of the school. Students can’t learn in a climate that allows or encourages offensive student behavior. Schools have a duty to be proactive in ensuring that they are free of sex discrimination, including harassment and a hostile school environment related to sexual violence.

 

Title IX Compliance Checklist for Colleges, Universities and Public Schools

Colleges and universities can argue that they are in compliance with Title IX if they can demonstrate that they:

  • Employ a Title IX coordinator who is properly trained to investigate and resolve cases and is involved in all incidents of sexual violence, harassment, and discrimination;
  • Do not act with deliberate indifference to a report of an incident and take immediate action to educate the student body and staff to prevent similar incidents from repeating;
  • Take immediate action to prevent the development of a hostile environment and eliminate the potential for retaliation and/or harassment by suspending or removing the accused while an investigation is pending;
  • Fully investigate under a Title IX coordinator and take appropriate action, even if there is a campus or community police investigation pending or taking place at the same time;
  • Do not use mediation as a tool to resolve cases of sexual harassment or sexual violence and avoid placing the burden on the victim;
  • Use the preponderance-of-evidence standard and stick to timelines for hearings and administrative action;
  • Are proactive in training faculty, staff, and students regarding sexual violence, sexual harassment and discrimination, in order to create a positive learning environment regardless of whether there is a complaint;
  • Offer and provide counseling services, regardless of whether the alleged victim wishes to file or formalize a complaint: and,
  • Widely publicize the school’s policy, provide adequate training to student body and staff, and ensure that policy is consistently implemented.

Schools are required to take immediate steps to address incidents of sexual violence and/or harassment and prevent it from affecting students further. Schools may not discourage victims who do report incidents from continuing their education. Student victims have the right to remain at school and participate in every educational opportunity available to them. It is the school’s responsibility to adequately respond to incidents and implement policies and procedures that protect student victims from further harm.

 

Off-campus Sexual Violence Incidents and Hostile School Environment Under Title IX

A hostile school environment can develop whether an incident took place on or off campus. Sexual harassment and sexual violence and abuse between students on a school-sponsored trip or at a school-sponsored event, or even outside of school between students are cause for the school to implement appropriate policies. For example, an act of sexual harassment might occur between students of the same high school at a weekend party. Initially, it may be considered that because this happened off campus, school policy and Title IX do not apply. However, if one student rapes another, and if students are aware of it and talk about it in school, this can create a hostile environment for the victim.

When a school receives such a report and fails to take action to end bullying, intimidation, or other negative behaviors against the victim, the school may be in violation of Title IX. In one case for which we were engaged, the school had knowledge that two male students sexually assaulted a female student off campus. Weeks passed and the school did not take any action to end the behavior of other students who harassed and intimidated this girl in the aftermath of the incident. It was my opinion, after reviewing the facts, that the student endured a hostile school environment created by the bullying of her classmates.

Schools must have an established procedure for handling complaints of sexual violence and harassment. When a complaint is received, the school must promptly investigate regardless of whether the complaint was reported to the police. Though a police investigation may very briefly delay the school’s investigation, schools are not allowed to wait for the conclusion of a police investigation and criminal proceedings and must conclude their own investigations in a timely manner. 2011 Office for Civil Rights Title IX guidance indicates that 60 days is an appropriate length of time to complete an investigation.

Courts have established that school districts are liable under Title IX if they fail to take effective action. Lack of an appropriate investigation, a Title IX coordinator’s lack of involvement, and lack of remedial action constitute deliberate indifference. Schools are required to use a “preponderance-of-the-evidence” standard to reach their conclusions, meaning discipline should result if it is more likely than not that discrimination, harassment, and/or violence occurred.

The federal government sets civil rights standards. If schools don’t take human rights, civil rights, and personal rights seriously and realize that they are the institutions charged with guarding these rights, then we will continue to be engaged by attorneys representing plaintiffs who claim they were not protected by their schools and by defendants who argue they were never told of any problems that make them accountable for the harassment of a student.

School Safety and Security: Responding to Terroristic Threats

student secuirty

In the wake of recent incidences of gun violence, school safety and security has become an increasingly pressing concern in the United States and Canada. Schools, summer camps, daycare centers, and other agencies charged with the safety of children have a duty to protect them, and their ability to do so depends on solid policies, training, and appropriate response to security threats. Laws, regulations, and internal policies designed to shield children from harm may be developed proactively in response to a risk assessment or reactively in response to an event that caused injury to a child. Both are valid options in today’s climate of terroristic threats to school safety and security. Inaction is not. Schools and other child-centered programs must consider and develop appropriate responses to this new dynamic.

Schools generally respond to terroristic threats quickly and decisively, but examples suggest that, at times, responses might not be sufficient based on the level of risk to school safety and security. In December 2015 — two weeks after 14 people were murdered nearby in a San Bernardino, Calif. center for people with developmental disabilities — the Los Angeles Unified School District responded to an e-mail threat to students by closing more than 1,000 schools for a day. At about the same time, New York City officials acknowledged having received a similar threat, but considered it so “outlandish” that they dismissed it as a hoax. As it turned out, nothing did occur in L.A. and the students were safe. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton accused his Los Angeles counterparts of overreacting, but the question remains: What if the threat had been credible and the school had failed to act?

The incidences in New York and Los Angeles are not isolated to large American cities. In November 2015, authorities in Canada — a country that prides itself on its low crime rate — reacted to the latest in a rash of e-mailed threats by closing 71 schools in Quebec and Ottawa. Nothing was found in any of those searches, either. “Notwithstanding the fact that these threats seem to be unfounded, they are taken very seriously by police and will be the subject of an investigation,” police in Quebec said.

Taking action in response to these threats, which met the provincial definition of a terrorist act, is the right thing to do. Ignoring or making light of any terroristic threat places students and teachers at risk.

 

Appropriate Response to School Safety and Security Threats

The standard of professional care and legal standards for determining what constitutes a credible threat are contradictory and confusing. Until the U.S. Supreme Court defines a common standard, various contradictory lower court opinions will persist. With no clear standard of what constitutes a credible threat to school safety and security or how a school or other agency should respond to one, personnel must take all terroristic threats or suspected threats seriously.

States and provinces have definitions of what constitutes a terroristic threat, and these definitions may fit in the context of schools as well. For example, Pennsylvania law defines a terroristic threat as a threat to commit violence with intent to terrorize another person, to cause evacuation of a building, or to cause serious public inconvenience with reckless disregard for the risk of doing so. In the school context, a warning of a mass shooting that prompts a school evacuation and disrupts education constitutes a terroristic threat under Pennsylvania law, and in response, action can be taken against the perpetrator.

In addition to state and provincial laws, other resources provide guidance for schools:

  • In its 1999 report, “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective,” the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group recommended that schools adopt threat-response policies based on three tiers: low-level threats carrying a minimal risk; medium-level threats, which could possibly be carried out but are not entirely realistic; and high-level threats that pose a serious and imminent danger. The report provides guidance for categorizing threats into each tier.
  • A 2004 report by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service, “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe Schools Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of Attacks in the United States,” suggests that there are productive actions that educators and others can pursue in response to the problem of targeted school violence and terrorism.
  • Another 2004 publication from the Department of Education and Secret Service, “Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates,” builds on the previous report. It sets forth a process, known as threat assessment, for managing students who may pose a threat.

The latter two reports stress that school shootings are rarely impulsive acts. The shooters told other students (though not the victims) about their plans in advance of their actions, but the other students did not tell adults. Telling others constituted a terroristic threat, but in many cases the students who knew of the threat failed to act. They did not report the threat to a school official who might have been able to intervene to prevent the compromise to school safety and security.

Perhaps these students did not know how to respond. Schools should provide training to staff, students, and parents and incorporate a definition of terroristic threat in the student code of conduct, the school security policy, and information that goes home to parents. Information from the school should clearly specify how a student, staff member, or someone from the community is to report threat information to a school official and how the official should respond. A good example is the policy of the School District of Philadelphia regarding terroristic threats. After defining a terroristic threat, Philadelphia’s policy states that:

  • Staff members and students shall be made aware of their responsibility for informing the building principal about any knowledge relevant to a possible or actual terroristic threat.
  • The building principal shall immediately call 911 and follow the district’s crisis plan after receiving a report of such a threat.
  • The principal shall react promptly to this information and knowledge, in compliance with state laws, regulations, and procedures established with local law enforcement.

 

School Safety and Security Threats Require Swift and Decisive Action

Sometimes there is no obvious threat, yet a terroristic act takes place. Depending on circumstances, the school might not be held responsible. For example, in a case in which I was engaged as the expert witness, a woman came through the front door of an elementary school with what she said was her nephew’s lunch in a brown bag. She asked the school secretary if she could take it to her nephew’s classroom. The secretary, who knew the woman, agreed. The woman went to the first-grade classroom, walked through the door, and greeted the teacher, “Good morning, Ms. Miller.” She then reached into the “lunch” bag, pulled out a revolver, and shot and killed the teacher in front of 24 children. Is it necessary to search every person who comes into a school, is known by staff, is the parent or aunt of a student, and who says she is there to bring a forgotten lunch to a child?

The answer is, “No.” In this case, it was my opinion that the school acted appropriately and reasonably under the circumstances. In this suburban community, there was no undue concern about a threat to the safety of the children in the school from outside sources. There was no announcement of a terroristic threat — the person entering the school did not say she was there to shoot a teacher. The secretary did not see a weapon, and she had no reason to believe the woman meant any harm. The woman was “screened” when she came into the school — she was known, she showed her license, signed in, and stated what was determined to be a legitimate reason for being there. Should the secretary have called the student to the office to pick up his “lunch?” Should the secretary have taken the “lunch” to the student? She would have noticed that the bag was too heavy for a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. But these thoughts come to mind after a tragedy like this. Can we do better in some situations? Yes, but this school, in my opinion, did nothing wrong. This terrible tragedy was sparked by a neighborhood spat. It is unfortunate that it ended with devastating consequences for 24 children.

There may be other, more obvious, situations that call to task the decision making of school personnel. One such example occurred in Texas, when a man approached a greeter in the school hallway and told her: “I am a gunman. My target is inside of the building. I’m going in the building. You stop me.” The principal did not call 911 because the man was immediately recognized as a parent and school volunteer. It appeared as if he had no weapon, and the school simply asked the man to leave. He did.

After this incident — which occurred less than a year after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School — some parents felt that the school should have treated it more seriously. Though the man told police he was testing the school’s security response, he was later charged with making terroristic threats. The charge was appropriate, but was the school’s response reasonable? Even though the greeter at the front door recognized the man as a parent and trusted him, could he have carried out his threat? Yes, he could have. The duty of the school is to protect the students. Whenever there is any terroristic threat or reasonable suspicion of a threat, the school must act swiftly and decisively.

Closing school and depriving students of a day or so of their education, if it assures their safety, is worth the effort and is appropriate. Not having a clear policy, failing to train staff, and not addressing terroristic threats that might place students and staff in harm’s way can result in injury or death — and costly civil litigation from the harmed party. The best practice is always to place the protection of children and the wider school community at the top of the list. After all, learning can’t take place if children and staff don’t feel safe.
Schools should review state and provincial laws, agreements with law enforcement agencies, and other resources. Review existing school or program policies and procedures for responding to a terroristic threat. Inform and train students and staff about both the policy and what constitutes a terroristic threat, and if one occurs, carry out procedures decisively. Treating seriously any potentially deadly threat to a school or its inhabitants and involving the authorities without debating its credibility is the best course of action in regards to school safety and security.

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.

Violation of Right to Bodily Security and Student Injury at School Resulting from Seclusion and Restraint

injury from restraints at school

Liability for Student Injuries at School

The first responsibility of educators and those who supervise children in residential programs, day care centers, before- and after-school programs, and other settings is to make sure that these programs foster learning and care in a safe environment. Asking third graders to move a cart with a heavy TV on top, inadequate staff instruction in safe techniques to quell disruptive students, not carefully checking that the door to the pool closes and locks the way it is supposed to, excessive discipline, playground aides talking among themselves but failing to pay attention to the children, not providing a sufficient number of nighttime supervisors in a dormitory, and a school police officer not trained on how to interact with children with behavioral disorders — any of these circumstances can lead to student injury at school or death of a child and high litigation costs. The overriding professional standard of care is to protect children’s health, safety, and well-being. Under this umbrella fall the development and implementation of policies, adequate staff training, and a level of supervision reasonably calculated to keep children safe.

Children in public and private schools and residential programs can be subjected to harm by the very adults charged with protecting them. Preventing this from occurring requires getting to know a student, his or her emotional status, and what circumstances might trigger certain behaviors. For example, a child who has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is recognized as someone who needs special accommodations. The IEP must be adequately developed and then implemented by all staff who come in contact with the student, including teachers and classroom assistants, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, school police, and custodians. When staff is neither informed about a student with special needs nor trained in techniques for de-escalating combative behavior, the stage is set for disaster. And if results are student injury at school, the school can be held liable.

Understanding the child’s abilities and limitations, knowing how to interact positively with the child, establishing clear policies, consistently following the rules, and adequately training staff will go a long way toward avoiding interactions that end up resulting in student injury at school.

Student Injury at School and Failure to Meet Standards of Care

Let’s look at some examples from my own work as an expert witness on standards of care in schools and residential facilities. In California, a child who had autism and mild mental retardation was forcibly restrained by as many as four people who held her at her classroom desk while forcing her to color a sheet of paper for one to two hours. She was also placed in a locked seclusion room for as many as five hours a day, during which she experienced severe duress and wet herself. She was told she could not change her clothes until she finished her time out and then finished the work she had refused. Even when time out was over, the child was kept in the seclusion room because it was designated as her classroom by the school. This case was litigated before a hearing officer and a court, with both holding that the school had violated her rights.

In this case, the school had a duty to develop an IEP that was reasonably calculated to help this student benefit from her education and to deal with any behavior or disability issues that could prevent her from learning. If she was being forced to color and was locked in seclusion for hours, she was not benefiting from her education. The school breached the professional standard of care that requires it to revise the IEP if it is not working. Any time a student must be overly disciplined, the IEP and any behavior plan are not working. In this example, the school failed to assess the child’s placement in an adequate way; failed to conduct a behavioral assessment to determine why the student was behaving the way she did; failed to develop a plan to de-escalate her behavior; and failed to train staff how to intervene appropriately to protect her from harm. In my opinion, the combination of these failures led to the physical restraint of the student, her placement in a seclusion room, and psychological, emotional, and educational harm.

In another example, a school resource officer in New Jersey shot a child numerous times when the student allegedly acted aggressively toward him. No one had told the officer that the student, who was in a special education program at a public school, had a disability that manifested as aggressive tendencies, nor did the school train the officer in how to de-escalate aggressive behavior of this student or others with similar behaviors. The student was carrying a knife. The officer ordered him to put it down several times, and when he did not, the officer fired his semi-automatic pistol at the boy nine times. The police department that hired the officer and placed him in the school in collaboration with the board of education investigated. Ultimately, it determined that the officer had acted properly and according to police protocol under the circumstance.

This example brings into focus the role of police and school resource officers. Many schools either directly employ police officers or have agreements with police departments to allow officers in the school to work alongside staff. These arrangements are generally positive. Officers on campus are able to observe students in the context of the school and get to know them, as well as interact with them in the community after school, which can strengthen community/police relations.

In schools, the key to effective police work is training. Officers who interact with students must understand the school behavior code, information about specific children who need special supervision, and the developmental stages of children. Many seventh and eighth grade children, for instance, are developing social maturity — and they don’t always think before acting. High school students, on the other hand, can be quite mature and may have other goals when interacting with one other. More importantly, students with disabilities may need to be communicated with in a different way than non-disabled students and might react unpredictably if they are frustrated or perceive that they are being bullied.

The police officer who emptied his weapon at this student had seen the student around the school but had no idea about his disability. He was never informed that under some circumstances, this student was capable of becoming aggressive — not because of his nature but because of an emotional immaturity that caused him to act before thinking. School staff understood how to de-escalate this student’s behavior when he began to show signs of frustration or anxiety, and they had been successful at protecting him and other students in such circumstances. The professional standard of care requires that all school personnel who are likely to encounter the student’s behavior be trained in how to deal with it by de-escalating the situation. The school resource officer was not trained to deal with the student in this way, however. His only training was from the police department: If a person coming at you with a weapon does not follow a command to drop the weapon, you may protect yourself with deadly force. Police are trained to focus on crime, and when a school does not adequately train a school resource officer to deal with students who have behavioral issues, a child can be harmed.

In another case for which I was the designated education administration and supervision expert witness, a judge ordered a school district to place a teenage student in a residential school that specialized in services for severely emotionally disturbed children. The school disagreed with the order but was obliged to comply. On the student’s second day at this facility, he ignored a staff person’s directive. Interaction between the student and the staff member escalated to the point where the staff person forcibly “placed” the student on the floor and sat on his back to restrain him. When the student struggled violently, the 200-pound male staff member pressed harder with his body to keep the student in place. Eventually, the student stopped struggling. He was dead when the EMTs arrived. The staff member was fired.

This case was complicated because the state, through the administrative law judge, ordered placement at the residential facility. The state was immune to a lawsuit, leaving the public school, the facility, the staff member, and his supervisors as defendants. The public school did not agree with the placement but complied under a legal order. The questions in this matter, then, were whether the residential facility met the professional standard of care and whether it acted appropriately and reasonably under the circumstance to protect the safety, health and well-being of the plaintiff.

My analysis of the facts led me to the opinion that the facility was negligent in its training. The school created a situation that otherwise would not have existed had the staff member been adequately trained and supervised. The staff member was minimally trained but no one assessed his ability to restrain a student in a safe manner. This was the first time the staff member had restrained a student in this manner. According to witnesses, the staff member did not attempt to de-escalate the situation — as is recommended by most accepted training in the use of physical restraint — before applying the deadly restraint. In my opinion, the staff member did not exercise reasonable care when it was quite apparent that disastrous injury could result from his action. His failure to de-escalate the confrontation and, in my opinion, failure to exercise care that even a careless person would use amounted to reckless disregard of the consequences of sitting on a student’s back. It is likely that the trier of fact in such a lawsuit would determine this behavior gross negligence. My expert opinion was that the school’s failure to provide adequate training was a proximate cause of this child’s wrongful death.

Student Rights to Bodily Security

Schools and other programs responsible for children can misuse punishment, and the effects of that misuse can cause years of damage to a child. Any new teacher, camp counselor, or child care worker knows that teaching children appropriate behavior is important for their own safety. What I learned as a teacher and school administrator is that establishing a mutual sense of respect is the first step on that path. Without question, everyone needs to know how to get along with others and to interact in a socially appropriate manner. However, one must be extremely careful when using punishment to change behavior — especially the behavior of an often temperamental or non-communicative child with a disability. Ill-timed, vengeful, and capricious punishment without incentives only creates a negative template for children to follow. Punishment that places kids in isolation only provokes counter aggression. When teachers deal with a student’s frustration or misbehavior by putting him in isolation, it is likely that the student would respond by expressing aggression through screaming, disrobing, soiling himself and, in some cases, hurting himself. Because of their disability, some students are unable to express themselves verbally, so they express their frustration the only way they were taught — through aggression.

When a child is restrained or forcefully taken to a time-out room, slammed into a chair, and yelled at to “sit still,” or encounters a teacher who slaps, pinches, or spanks her, her constitutional right to bodily security has been breached. The right to security of one’s person and body is generally protected when there is no justification for physical contact. This does not prohibit physical contact that is justified by a need to protect others or school property or to maintain order, and when the manner and degree of authorized physical force or restraint is reasonable. While some incidents of student abuse give rise to multiple constitutional, statutory, and common law claims of injury to bodily security, those sources create different standards of student rights and school district liability. Title IX indirectly supports the view that sexual abuse of students is a serious invasion of a constitutional civil right.

Student suicides and sexual abuse of students have brought to light another theory of constitutional right, namely that public schools, as state-created, state-operated institutions with full, though temporary, control and custody of their students, have a “special relationship” with an affirmative constitutional duty to protect students from harm which includes student injury at school. It is easier to prove a violation of this duty than to prove that a school was grossly negligent or deliberately indifferent to student harm. Students injured at school by school employees while in the custody of the school may argue that their public school relationship is more like the situation of a prison, where inmates are substantially required to be there and controlled by the state. However, in public schools, the duty-to-protect argument is open to further clarification and case development and is often the subject of many lawsuits against schools and other programs in charge of caring for children. In two federal cases (Walton v. Alexander [1994] and Pagano v Massapequa Public Schools [1989]), for instance, courts have issued contradictory opinions on the circumstances around which a “special relationship” exists.

Duty to protect is often the subject of cases involving wrongful death and serious student injury at school. The concept of constitutional breach of protecting children and their bodily integrity may be argued in such cases. To mount a strong defense against such a claim, the school or agency must show it had and implemented, at the time of the alleged injury, clear and concise policies, a comprehensive training program, and diligent supervision that assured that through its administration and/or other employees, the school or agency is protecting the health, safety, and well-being of children.

Applying and Piercing Governmental Immunity in School Liability Cases

Governmental Immunity in School Liability CasesWhen a student personal injury in a public school triggers litigation, plaintiff and defendant attorneys must address the concept of governmental immunity. In general, governmental immunity shields public schools from tort litigation and liability. Governmental immunity is not universally applicable, however, depending on how the facts of a specific case accord with state or provincial laws. This article is about how governmental immunity in public school cases might be pierced and how schools can determine whether governmental immunity applies in school liability cases.

 

In the United States, state laws vary considerably on the question of governmental immunity for tort liability. Common law has driven legislative initiatives, often in response to a trending issue, that strengthen or erode governmental immunity protection. In Canada, by contrast, tort liability of the government is relatively new and is statute-based. In Canada, the Crown Liability Act leaves the “Crown” liable in tort as an individual would be.

 

Variation in U.S. laws results in differing levels of school immunity from state to state. Eleven states[1] allow suits regarding nondiscretionary functions only; 39 states, including the District of Columbia, provide for discretionary action as an exception to the general rule of liability. Some states protect schools from liability for the tort of negligent hiring or retention of staff. Some permit suits only for personal injury or death or only for dangerous property conditions. A few states generally allow tort suits against teachers only for “willful and wanton” misconduct. Some states limit dollar amounts that may be collected.

School Liability Immunity in the context of Discretionary Judgment and Dangerous Conditions

Governmental immunity is the most frequent defense in tort cases. Before considering whether governmental immunity applies, the questions of school liability — such as duty of care, breach of duty, and proximate causation — should be addressed. Attorneys should carefully review and analyze the circumstances surrounding student injury leading to a tort claim. Consider two examples: a teacher who tutors a student alone in her classroom with the door closed and a teacher who continues to use equipment that has been recalled for safety reasons. The immediate relevant questions in both examples are: Did the school have actual notice, or should it have known, of a situation that a reasonable school administrator would agree could place a student in harm’s way? Under the circumstances, did the school act reasonably, appropriately, and within the professional standard of care to protect students from harm?

In the first example, if the school maintains a policy that no teacher is allowed to be alone with a student in a classroom, yet it is known that the teacher is tutoring a student one-on-one in her classroom behind a closed door, did the administrator follow up by correcting the teacher and noting the violation in her personnel file? In the second example, did the school continue to use a table saw with a missing blade guard, or did the teacher take it out of use and arrange for its repair? Ignoring red flags may lead to the potential for student sexual abuse in the first example and serious student personal injury in the second. In some states, governmental immunity may not apply to these examples.

Because negligent acts are often the result of discretionary judgment on the part of a school, the question of whether an act (or failure to act) was discretionary is of major importance in states granting school immunity for discretionary acts. Discretionary acts in school setting generally involve planning, goal setting, evaluation, and the exercise of judgment.

As an example, federal and state laws require schools to identify students with disabilities and engage in a process that leads to the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP is a written document that specifies “contractual” agreements about services to be provided to the student. For a student with a physical disability, one such provision might be an aide to help the student safely negotiate school hallways and protect her from injury on the playground. In one case, the aide did not show up for work on a day the student attempted to negotiate a crowded stairway. She fell and sustained an injury, causing permanent scarring to her face from lacerations. She sued the school, claiming negligent student supervision. The school invoked immunity, saying the act of providing the aide was discretionary. Determining whether this truly was a discretionary act, however, is the key as to whether immunity applies in this type of case.

As a school administration expert witness, when I review and analyze a case like this, I determine the professional standard of care under the circumstances and whether the school, through its administration and/or other employees, acted reasonably, appropriately, and met that standard. Was the requirement for an aide to assist the student reasonable and appropriate? The school had determined that the aide was necessary for the student to have safe access to her education. Does this place a nondiscretionary component into the analysis? If there is no discretion or flexibility when it comes to providing the aide, and on this day no aide was there, did the school breach a mandatory standard — perhaps removing the protection of governmental immunity?

In another example, a principal allegedly knew that a music teacher had sexually abused a student in an after-school program. Instead of taking appropriate action by reporting the incident to child protective services and separating the teacher from students, the principal simply transferred the teacher to another school. At the new school, the teacher continued his behavior with a different student until it was reported to police. It may be argued that the proximate cause of the second student’s sexual abuse was the principal’s gross negligence in his decision making.

In a state that allows level of negligence to determine whether governmental immunity can be invoked, the plaintiff may prevail. However, if there was no knowledge of the teacher’s behavior before his transfer, then the school would have had no duty to protect students from harm and would likely prevail under the doctrine of governmental immunity.

 

School Immunity and Premises Liability

A proximate cause of student injury in schools may be failure on the part of the administration or other employees who are charged with a ministerial duty. In contrast to discretionary acts, a ministerial duty is a responsibility to conform to federal, state, or local statutes or to policies and procedures a school has set. Determining the elements of a policy and enacting the policy may be discretionary acts, while the responsibility to carry them out is a ministerial school duty.

If a student is injured by equipment that violates safety standards or is not maintained according to the manufacturer’s specifications, courts must decide whether the general legislative policy of promoting student safety should prevail by imposing tort liability, or whether the doctrine of immunizing the school from exposure to tort suits should prevail. Many courts favor public policy governing safety and impose liability on school districts, thus piercing governmental immunity.

Some jurisdictions recognize claims of failure to keep school premises in a safe condition, permitting recovery from schools for maintaining a nuisance. Maintaining a nuisance seems to be recognized as an exception to the general rule of immunity. Some courts have determined that if school officials mismanage school property, they are liable for damages because of that mismanagement.

As an example, in the corner of a third-grade classroom, a teacher set up a “reading lounge.” During afternoon reading time, six children crowded into the area to see the new books the teacher put out. Three students sat together on a desk that collapsed, seriously injuring a child. The teacher knew the desk was broken and had reported it to the custodian, expecting that it would be taken from her room for repair. Yet she did not prevent students from continuing to use it, leading to injury. Did the school have a duty to take the desk out of service, foreseeing that a student could become injured if it remained in the classroom? If it can be shown the teacher acted grossly negligent by failing to assure the desk was repaired and that this was the proximate cause of the student’s injury, then in some states this may be considered “maintaining a nuisance” and the school may not be shielded by governmental immunity.

Playground injuries are often addressed in the context of governmental immunity. In one example, the playground in a school for students with disabilities was fenced. The latch on the fence gate had been broken for weeks, and though this had been reported to the principal when it first broke, no action was taken to repair it. A student left the playground through the defective gate, running into the street and being struck by a car resulting in a wrongful death claim. This school may not be able to stand behind governmental immunity if it can be successfully argued that the school had a ministerial duty to assure the gate operated correctly to protect students from harm. On the other hand, if the attorney for the school convinces a trier of fact that installing a fence with a gate in that location and repairing the gate is discretionary, the school may prevail.

Even if the school argues that these activities are discretionary, an expert witness working on a case like this would review and analyze issues, policies, and actions that may have been a proximate cause of injury to a student. As an example, if I were to render an opinion that, because of the level of disability students at this school, the administration had a higher-than-average duty to protect them from harm — coupled with the facts that the school board conducted a safety audit of the grounds, identified the necessity of a fence and gate to protect student safety, and enacted a well-understood policy that the gate remain closed when students are on the playground but the gate latch went unrepaired for weeks — I would likely determine that failure to repair the latch in a timely manner was neither reasonable nor a discretionary act, and therefore governmental immunity would not be applicable and school liability for student wrongful death would stand. The inoperable gate created a situation that otherwise would not have existed. By applying my experience and qualifications, I assess duty to protect, whether the school’s action or inaction was reasonable and appropriate, and whether it was a proximate cause of injury or death. A careful review and analysis of the facts from the perspective of a reasonable school administrator will help to determine if the school’s actions or inactions led to injury.

 

Summary

Because it varies significantly by state and its provision is influenced by individual circumstances, governmental immunity is something of an elusive standard. Assessing a public school’s duty to provide for the health, safety, and welfare of its students and determining how well it fulfilled or failed to fulfill that duty from the perspective of a reasonable school administrator provides the starting point for determining whether school immunity will prevail. This determination and analysis of applications of governmental immunity can either be used as a school defense against liability, or as a way of piercing governmental immunity by plaintiffs.

[1] Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, and New Mexico do not address discretionary actions as potential exceptions to governmental immunity in school liability cases.

Campus Sexual Assault and Harassment Lawsuits: Title IX Standards and Questions of Liability

Campus Sexual Violence

When students are sexually assaulted or harassed, they are deprived of equal and free access to an education.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to college and university administrators about implementation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in regards to campus sexual assault cases. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities in schools that receive federal funding. The letter explains that schools are required to develop and distribute policies regarding sexual harassment, designate a Title IX coordinator to oversee the school’s duties, train staff and students in sexual harassment and violence issues, and establish an investigation procedure and an adjudication process. The letter did not articulate specific procedural safeguards, rules for the examination of evidence, or guidelines for the conduct of adjudication or hearing processes for cases of campus sexual violence.

This lack of specificity allowed colleges and universities to develop and implement their own procedures, which vary widely from campus to campus. As a result, some schools have implemented procedures that, however well intended, may ultimately be judged as arbitrary and capricious — opening the gate for lawsuits from either an alleged victim who may feel that he or she was not adequately heard or from an accused individual who feels unjustly punished. In the end, determination of the believability of the alleged victim and the punishment of the accused is in the hands of school officials.

Title IX Standards and Campus Sexual Assault Liability

Campus sexual assault and violence in higher education institutions is a pressing civil rights issue. When students are sexually assaulted or harassed, they are deprived of equal and free access to an education. It is also a matter of law; sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX.

A report of student-on-student sexual harassment on campus is not enough to demonstrate a Title IX violation. The school’s actions in response to a complaint are key to a school’s liability. Federal courts have held that there is no violation of civil rights laws if harassment occurs, as long as the school investigates an allegation in good faith. Disputes often rest on this question. In a recent article, I discussed Title IX as it applies to elementary and secondary schools. In this article, I reinforce that Title IX is also applicable to colleges and universities that accept federal funding, and that its misapplication can result in a lawsuit against the school.

Critical Elements of a Title IX Lawsuit Applied to Campus Sexual Assault Cases

A Title IX lawsuit  will focus on the college’s handling of sexual misconduct, complaints, investigations, and training of staff. As an example, in J.K. v. Arizona Board of Regents, a federal court in 2008 rejected Arizona State University’s argument that it was not responsible under Title IX when a campus athlete raped a student, even though ASU had previously expelled the athlete for severe sexual harassment of multiple other women on campus. Under the settlement, ASU awarded the plaintiff $850,000 and agreed to appoint a student safety coordinator to review and reform policies for reporting and investigating incidents of sexual harassment and assault. In a 2006 case, Simpson v. University of Colorado, a federal court found that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that the university acted with deliberate indifference toward two students who were sexually assaulted by student football players and recruits. In settling the case, the university agreed to hire a new counselor for the Office of Victim’s Assistance, appoint an independent Title IX advisor, and pay $2.5 million in damages.

Implementation of Professional Standards

A July 12 New York Times article, “Reporting Rape, and Wishing She Hadn’t: How One College Handled a Sexual Assault Complaint,” illustrates what can go wrong when schools fail to adhere to professional standards, don’t train staff, or in appropriately investigate a complaint.

Professional standards include implementation of federal and state statutes, regulations and advisories, and institutional policies, as well as explicit and implicit contracts and the reasonable administrator standard (whether a reasonable administrator agree that the college or university had a duty to act in a certain way under the circumstance). College policies must adequately reflect these standards. School officials’ conduct must be consistent with good policy.

The question of whether a college or university met the professional standard of care is determined by answering the question: “Did the school, through its administration and/or other employees, act appropriately and reasonably under the circumstance?”

The question of appropriateness is answered by reviewing the professional standards and comparing them against the school’s actions. As an example, the federal standard (34 CFR §106.8[b]) requires a college or university to adopt and publish grievance procedures providing for prompt and equitable resolution of complaints. Did the school adopt and publish a grievance procedure? Did it provide for prompt and equitable resolution of a complaint?

The question of reasonableness is answered by analyzing the facts as gleaned through a review of such documents as the grievance report, police reports, transcripts of the disciplinary hearing, and training documents. Did the school act promptly once it knew or had reason to believe that a student was sexually harassed or assaulted? Did the school provide an equitable resolution to the complaint of campus sexual assault? Was the process of investigation thorough and fair to all parties? Was the disciplinary hearing impartial, unbiased, and evenhanded?

Inadequate Due Process in Cases of Campus Sexual Violence

In the Times article, reporter Walt Bogdanich described the plight of an 18-year-old freshman on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York. In describing the process followed by the school, Bogdanich demonstrated — and I agree — that the school was ill prepared to evaluate an allegation of a campus sexual assault. I also agree with the reporter’s assertion that this case illustrates how school disciplinary panels are “a world unto themselves, operating in secret with scant accountability and limited protections for the accuser or the accused.”

In this case, three football players were accused of sexually assaulting the freshman at a party. Later the same night, a friend found the student in another location on campus, arriving to see one of the athletes raping her. No one, including the victim and the student who observed the assault, initially reported the behavior. Because the school had no actual knowledge of this behavior, it had no duty to act at that time.

The Title IX standard is that if a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment or abuse, the school must take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.*  Shortly after this incident, the student reported events to campus security. Security completed a report, and the college disciplinary committee convened to determine the believability of the victim, witnesses, and alleged assailant and to dole out discipline.

The college investigated the campus sexual assault report, held a hearing, and cleared those allegedly responsible in a space of 12 days. Even though one might praise the school for acting swiftly, a closer look must be given to the process of the review and training of those making the decision.

The “Dear Colleague” letter mentioned previously clearly sets the standard: The school’s inquiry must in all cases be prompt, thorough, and impartial. The three elements — prompt, thorough, and impartial — should be executed in the context of the professional standard of care. In this case, the investigation was prompt. But I would argue it was not thorough and impartial.

A three-member panel convened behind closed doors to adjudicate the student’s complaint. According to the Times, the panelists “acted as prosecutor, judge, and jury, questioning students and rendering judgment.”

There is no evidence in the record, the Times reported, that those sitting on the panel were trained in sexual harassment and abuse issues. The victim’s attorney scoffed at the “absurdity” of the questions asked during the review by one panelist, who asked the witness whether he had seen the accused student’s penis in the victim’s vagina or if he had just seen them having sex. Any reasonable school employee who is appropriately trained to participate in such a panel would agree that this question demonstrates lack of training — implying a breach of the professional standard of care.

Members are supposed to be trained for this type of assignment. Indeed, OCR states that training for administrators, teachers, staff, and students can help to ensure that they understand what types of conduct constitute sexual harassment or violence, identify warning signals that may need attention, and know how to respond.

According to OCR, all persons involved in implementing grievance procedures, including investigators and adjudicators, must have training or experience in handling complaints of sexual harassment and violence as well as knowledge of the school’s grievance procedures. In sexual violence cases, the fact finder and decision maker also should have commensurate training or knowledge about sexual violence. For instance, if an investigation or hearing involves forensic evidence, that evidence should be reviewed by a trained forensic examiner.

Summary

If a college has appropriate policies, adequately distributes those policies, appropriately trains its staff to investigate complaints of campus sexual assault or harassment, and conducts an unbiased hearing, then there is little an alleged victim can present if he or she disagrees with the decision of the disciplinary panel. If, on the other hand, the facts demonstrate that policies were nonexistent, not representative of the professional standard of care, or not adequately distributed to staff and students, or that those sitting on the panel were inadequately trained and the hearing was conducted contrary to the professional standard of care, then the victim or the perpetrator might present a convincing argument for appealing a panel’s decision.

In this case, the school may have failed to meet the professional standard of care. If it happened at this school, it is likely happening at colleges and universities around the country. That failure can leave schools liable for incidents involving campus sexual assault and harassment, and can result in expensive lawsuits and settlements.

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*This is the standard for administrative enforcement of Title IX and in court cases where plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief.  The standard in private lawsuits for monetary damages is actual knowledge and deliberate indifference. See Davis v. Monroe Cnty. Bd. Of Ed., 526 U.S. 629, 648 (1999).

Private School Lawsuits: Contractual v. Constitutional Standard of Care

Sexual abuse in private schools

In private schools, academic and conduct issues involving students raise contractual as opposed to constitutional issues.

The relationship between private schools and their students is very different than the one that exists when a student is in a public school. In private schools, the relationship is contractual in nature. The contract is expressed or implied in written documents, such as promotional literature, student applications, and student and staff handbooks. By contrast, the relationship between public schools and students is governed by federal and state statues, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Title IX. In public schools, students are afforded constitutional, substantive, and procedural protections that are generally not applicable in a private school. In private schools, academic and conduct issues involving students raise contractual, as opposed to constitutional, issues.

This article will present standards that should be considered by an attorney representing a plaintiff or defendant in private school lawsuits and while assessing the rights of private school students regarding academic matters, discipline, and the right to an education.

Contractual vs. Constitutional Standing

Private school students do not enjoy the wealth of constitutional rights afforded to students in public schools. Public schools are generally treated as governmental institutions, and various statutes protect students against discriminatory actions by governments. The private school, however, is not an arm of the government. Therefore, private schools do not have the same responsibility a public school has to provide a student with a disability an appropriate education, for instance, or to protect a student from harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

Private school students and their parents, however, have come to expect due process if they perceive that their rights have been denied. Relying on the framework of public-sector rights will often focus dispute resolution in a private school on concepts of fairness that mimic due process in public institutions.

Due process means that people will be given an opportunity to tell their side of the story before an authority makes a decision. There is the expectation that students will be treated fairly and will be subject to rules that are fair and consistent for everyone. In the public school sector, this is identified as procedural and substantive due process rights. In private schools, a 1993 case in Louisiana (Ahlum v. Administrators of Tulane Educ. Fund) validated the expectation that rules and processes be clearly stated and that they are neither arbitrary nor capricious.

In a private school, the expectation of fair treatment is viewed in a contractual context: Unacceptable conduct by a student may result in penalties, discipline or sanctions. The language contained in private school promotional materials, admission applications, student and staff handbooks, and other documents forms the basis for such a contract, and the standards articulated in these documents form the basis for determining whether a private school met a professional standard of care. If the language in these documents is concise, unambiguous, and supported by the school’s mission and goals but the student breaches this contract, then the school can act within the confines of the document without retaliation from the student. Whenever these documents create conflicting or ambiguous standards, however, students are likely to contest any discipline on the basis that they have been treated unfairly.

Illustration of Successful Private School Lawsuit

In a prestigious private church-related school, a coach and student were having a sexual relationship. The coach was fired and the student remained at the school. Firing the coach was appropriate and met the school’s standard of care. In the school’s written employment agreement with the coach, there is specific language prohibiting such behavior and outlining the consequence: immediate termination. In addition, the staff handbook clearly identifies prohibited behavior between a staff member and a student. In this situation, there could have been no successful challenge by the coach.

The behavior between the coach and the student was reported, investigated, and found to have merit. He was arrested after admitting guilt. The coach left the school without a challenge. The student, on the other hand, remained at the school. Jessica was a year and a half out from graduation and intended to apply to several colleges based on her excellent grades and competitive success in sports. As soon as the story hit the media, her classmates began harassing the girl, saying, “Why did you ruin Mr. Hank’s career?” “You should have kept quiet. Now look what you’ve done.” “You ought to leave the school.” The talk became so open and abusive that some teachers told the administration that it impeded their ability to teach. Jessica’s continued presence, they maintained, caused such disruption that other students were losing out. Wanting to quiet things down without generating more media attention, administrators met behind closed doors and developed a plan to extract Jessica from the school. Without her, they concluded, the problem would go away and the administration would be able to focus on recruiting other students.

Jessica, meanwhile, continued to be victimized by those she thought of as her friends. The headmaster called Jessica’s father and asked him to come to the office to talk about how the school can curtail the “disruptive” talk among the students and what to do to help Jessica. What parent wouldn’t want to meet with a school official to put an end to his child’s harassment?

Jessica’s father showed up at the headmaster’s office ahead of schedule, anxiously wanting to work with the school to help his daughter. He was invited into the administrator’s office, where he was greeted by the headmaster, the dean of students, and the attorney representing the school. The headmaster told Jessica’s father that she was no longer welcome at the school. She needed to leave, he was told — now, mid-way through the school year — and she would not be allowed to return for her senior year. The headmaster also told Jessica’s father that the school would not write favorable recommendations to colleges. On the other hand, he was told, if he signed a withdrawal agreement immediately, the school would return one half of the year’s tuition, would support her application to another high school for her senior year, and would write favorable letters to colleges later.

Jessica’s father wasn’t prepared to be blindsided. Under the pressure of the situation, he did not consider that the school had very clear policies against student-to-student harassment, intimidation, and bullying. The student handbook clearly prohibited students from intimidating or spreading rumors about one another, making Jessica’s treatment by fellow students in violation of the school’s standard. The student code of conduct called for suspensions of students who engage in such behavior. If the behavior was severe enough or if it occurred a second time, the student could be considered for expulsion. The handbook and code of conduct did not provide for disciplining or expelling the victim of such behavior. Under pressure, Jessica’s father signed the agreement and took his daughter out of the school that day.

He later had second thoughts, realizing that he had been coerced by a school more concerned about its economic future than Jessica’s emotional future. Because this was a private school, the administration had the right to determine whether Jessica would be accepted back for her senior year. However, the school had a duty to follow the professional standard of care it defined in its own promotional materials, student application, and other documents.

Thus, Jessica had been wronged by the school twice — once when it failed to protect her from the coach’s abuse and a second time when it expelled her. She didn’t return, but with the help of an attorney Jessica’s father filed a lawsuit against the school. A jury awarded Jessica $12.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages based on emotional and academic harm. Let’s take a closer look at this case.

Assessing Private School Claims

An attorney representing a plaintiff or defending a private school should follow these steps when assessing a case such as this:

  1. The standard. The standard that must be applied in a private school is derived from the school’s own documents, such as its promotional materials, statements on student applications, teacher and coach handbooks, student handbooks, and disciplinary codes.

The private school in this example was very clear in its promotional materials and student handbook. In its brochure, the school’s stated goal was to promote the well-being of its students and, to that end, it touted a program described as supportive — one that encourages friendships and discourages inappropriate interactions between students such as harassment, hazing, and bullying. The student handbook clearly stated that no student shall spread rumors about another student and that no student shall harass, intimidate, or bully another student. The school provided information about its policy at an assembly at the beginning of each school year, and every student and parent received a copy of the policy. The student code of conduct reinforced this policy, stating that students found to be spreading rumors would be subjected to discipline, including a suspension of up to three days. A student found to be harassing, intimidating, or bullying another student in a way that interfered with another student’s education or school life would be suspended immediately for three days. If it happened again, the aggressor would be considered for expulsion.

  1. Breach of standard. Once it is established that the school has a standard of care, the next element to examine is whether it breached that standard by the actions or inactions of its administration and/or other employees.

Knowing what was occurring among the students will indicate what the school, through its administration, knew and whether its policies were being violated. In this case rumors, harassment, intimidation and/or bullying were known through the reports of the teachers, students, and other observers. Documentation in the form of written reports, disciplinary action taken toward any student, and letters to parents and students all form the basis for analyzing how the school met its duty according to its policy. Did the school appropriately respond to reports of rumors? Did the administration investigate the reports of harassment, intimidation, and bullying of Jessica according to its standard? What did the school officials determine — and did they appropriately and reasonably apply its policies?

  1. Harm to the student. If a private school breached its own established standard, then the next element to review is damage, if any, to the student. This damage can be academic or emotional. If there was no breach of standard, there might still be harm but that harm might have been caused by an intervening variable. The school might successfully defend against harm caused by external factors. On the other hand, if the school breached its own standard, ignored its own policy, or acted outside the contract it had with students and parents, and if it can be argued that this breach caused the student harm, the plaintiff may prevail.

If a student stays home for a period of time because other students’ intimidation, rumors, or bullying made her fearful of going to school, it might be argued that the student was not able to access her education as per her contract with the school. Further, it may be argued that this situation caused damage to the student through the school’s breach of its own contract or policy. When a private school publicly states that it does not tolerate intimidation and that it has a process for disciplining students who engage in such behavior, it has a duty to fulfill that contract. If the school chooses instead only to focus on its concern for negative publicity, an argument can be made that the school focused on the wrong thing, breached its own standard, allowed the harassment to continue, and permitted the student to suffer academically and emotionally.

Summary

The rights of students are different in private schools than in public schools. In private schools, contractual rights prevail, and those rights are determined through explicit and implied agreements in documents produced by the school. In determining the merit of filing an action, plaintiff’s attorney should review these documents and focus on explicit language that leaves no doubt of a contract between the student and the school. When defending against a claim in a private school, defendant attorney should review the language of these same documents and be able to argue that the school did not act in an arbitrary or capricious manner.

Contributory Negligence Defense in School Liability Lawsuits

school liability

Contributory Negligence Defense in School Lawusits

Student injury or death often brings negative attention to a school. In fact, the first thing often reported publicly is an injured party’s claim that an incident stemmed from the negligence or misconduct of a staff member responsible for a child’s safety — a teacher, coach, or bus driver, for instance. But a student injury or death can result from any number of situations. These might range from school-related action or inaction, such as a breach of school security or failure to follow a student’s medical orders, to a student’s own actions and choices triggering a contributory negligence defense.

Consider these examples: A child runs into a street without a crossing guard present and is hit by a car; a teenager is shot by a rival gang member after his teacher sent him to a nearby restaurant to get her a sandwich; a boy sneaks into a restricted area of a building and falls through a ceiling; students drown in a river after taking boats out at night; and a girl on a skateboard flies off a ledge in a school parking lot. Any one of these cases could result in a liability lawsuit. But a determination of the facts may also show contributory negligence and produce strong defense against a liability claim.

The strength of a defense is determined by examining the four elements of negligence: (1) Duty to protect. Was a duty owed to the student? If it can be argued that no duty existed at the time of the injury, then a defense may be very strong. (2) Standard of care. Was reasonable care exercised in protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the student? If the school adequately instructed and warned students about a danger but a student purposefully disregarded these admonitions, a defense of contributory negligence might prevail. (3) Proximate cause. Was the injury or death directly related to something the school did or failed to do? If a school’s actions or inaction cannot be demonstrated as a proximate cause of the incident, there is a strong defense. (4) Actual injury. Even if the school breached a standard of care requiring specific safety measures, lack of an injury will contribute to the defense of the lawsuit.

This article will use a hypothetical case to demonstrate how the concept of contributory negligence may serve as a defense against liability and help plaintiff and defense attorneys assess the merit of a suit or the strength of a defense.

Determining if Contributory Negligence Applies as a Defense

According to the Restatement (Second) of Torts, section 463, contributory negligence is conduct that falls “below the standard to which [a person] should conform for his own protection.” School districts use a defense of contributory negligence when alleging that a student contributed to his or her own injury. Let’s illustrate how contributory negligence might apply when a student is seriously or fatally injured on school property.

A suburban junior high school warned students on a regular basis not to ride skateboards on school property. The principal made several such announcements over the public address system at the beginning of the school year. She also posted fliers around the school, gave one to each student in homeroom, and sent one home to parents. The announcements and fliers explained the dangers of skateboarding in the school parking lot because of the proximity of utility poles in the lot and a steep slope adjacent to it — all of which posed a threat of harm to a student who is unable to control a skateboard. The school posted signs in the parking lot reading “Danger — Skateboarding Prohibited.”

In the early morning hours before school, a group of seventh graders brought their skateboards to the parking lot and rode around. Five minutes later, one of them veered over the edge of the steep slope, crashing and seriously injuring her head. Another skateboarder called 911. EMTs treated the student onsite and transported her to a hospital. After three weeks in a coma, she died.

Our hypothetical case has the markings of a wrongful death lawsuit and a vigorous defense. In the context of the elements of negligence, let’s examine what plaintiff and defendant attorneys should consider.

First, was there a duty to protect the students? The school has a duty to reasonably protect people on its property, including the parking lot. These students were on school grounds at a time when students normally begin to arrive. The school might argue that the students should not have been in the parking lot at a certain time and, therefore, it had no duty to protect them. In this scenario, however, the weight will fall on the side of a duty to protect the students.

The next element to review is whether the school exercised reasonable care to protect its students. In our example, the school made clear to students that they were prohibited from skateboarding in the parking lot. The school also posted warning signs there. Plaintiff and defendant attorneys should examine whether school’s recognition of the danger was sufficient to protect students from harm. What did the school communicate to students? Were warnings adequate? In this situation, it’s likely that the school will argue successfully that it recognized the potential for danger and exercised reasonable care to protect students from harm.

The next question to answer is whether the student contributed in any way to her injury and death. Is it reasonable to consider that this girl would have understood the warnings but ignored them? In Russell v. Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska (423 N.W.2d 126 [1988]), the Supreme Court of Nebraska ruled that “One who is capable of understanding and discretion and who fails to exercise ordinary care and prudence to avoid dangers is negligent or contributory negligent.”

In determining whether contributory negligence applies, an attorney should consider three factors:

(1) Physical facts — the extent to which a hazard is noticeable and the degree of alertness called for by surrounding circumstances to avoid such a hazard. (2) The action taking place — the movement, sound, and physical activities of both the individual who was hurt as well as those of other people and objects in the vicinity. In other words, what distractions may or may not have influenced the chain of events? (3) The characteristics of the student who was hurt — age, intelligence, experience, knowledge, physical condition, or other factors that would influence a student’s ability to detect dangerous conditions or appreciate the hazards involved.

The third factor leads us to an important question: Is it possible that, because of diminished capacity, the student in our example would not be able to understand the dangers of riding a skateboard in the parking lot? Even with clear warnings about the potential for injuries when directions are not followed, some students may not understand how to keep themselves safe from harm. Assessing whether a school’s notice of danger was reasonable in this context can weigh heavily for or against a defense.

Some courts would hold that a very young child is incapable of contributory negligence because the child does not realize or understand the degree of care that must be exercised to avoid injury. Courts have differed on an age cutoff, but a common guideline is that children under the age of 7 are not capable of contributory negligence, Contributory negligence is also generally difficult to prove among students between the ages of 7 and 13, unless it can be shown that a student is unusually intelligent and mature.

School Liability and Duty of Care

Let’s conclude our example with an analysis of the facts.

Did the girl have the capacity to protect herself from harm? Let’s assume that the girl was 13 years old and in the advanced math/science track. Her IQ was above average and she didn’t have any known learning disabilities. Clearly, she would have been able to understand the principal’s announcements, read the fliers and the warning signs, and act in a way to prevent herself from injury by skateboarding in the parking lot.

Were the dangers in the parking lot clear? The slope was obvious to anyone near the edge of the parking area. The utility poles were noticeable to any person in the lot. The school posted numerous signs forbidding students to skateboard in the parking lot, and any reasonable person would see the signs. Several signs were posted near the slope and at entrances to the lot from various roads and walkways. The hazards, it could be argued, were clear to a reasonable student of the same age and capacity.

Did the school adequately exercise its duty to protect? In our case, a defense attorney may have a strong argument that the school acted appropriately under the circumstances — and that the student did not. The student had the capacity to understand that if she acted in a way counter to the school’s warnings, she risked placing herself in harm’s way. The student had a duty to protect herself from harm. Through her actions, she contributed to her own injury and subsequent death.

What was happening at the moment of injury? The girl and her friends were skateboarding in the parking lot — an action that was prohibited. There were no distractions in the lot that would have rendered her unable to control her skateboard before she went over the edge of the slope. In fact, it was learned that the injured student purposefully headed toward the slope while telling her classmates, “Look, I’m going to skate to the bottom!”

Not all liability claims are so clear-cut, and other intervening variables may warrant consideration when assessing a case involving student injury or death. Our example, however, provides a format for a plaintiff attorney to consider the merit of a case or for a defense attorney to evaluate the strength of a contributory negligence defense.

Summary

Determining the extent to which a person may be responsible for his or her own injury is critical in the school context, where the school is obligated to protect the health, safety, and welfare of students. Because of age or disability, some students may require greater supervision than others. Some students are bright and can understand the dangers that await them if they ignore warnings and choose to take a risk that could lead to injury. Two key variables in cases involving student injury and death are whether a school’s warnings to students about the dangers and risks were adequate and whether a student had the capacity to understand those warnings. When the answer to both is “yes,” then an examination of whether the student may have contributed to his or her own injury is warranted. The student’s actions may prove to be a strong defense against a liability suit.