May 28, 2017

Student Safety: Screening and Background Checks for School Volunteers

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

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

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

 

State Requirements for Volunteer Screenings and Background Checks

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

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

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

 

Student Safety in Specialized Programs and Placements

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

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

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

 

Student Safety and Standard of Professional Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Duty Under In Loco Parentis

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

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

 

Professional Standard of Care

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

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

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

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

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

 

Training and Oversight are Essential to Avoid Residential Program Liability

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

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

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

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

 

Summary

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

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

Student Injury and Standard of Professional Care Analysis in Schools

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

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

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

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

 

Student Injury Lawsuits and Professional Standards of Care

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

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

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

 

Professional Standard and School Liability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Caring for children with special healthcare needs

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

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

 

When is a school or child care agency held liable?

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

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

 

Implementing a plan to avoid life-threatening events

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Assessment of Liability: Child Abuse and Injury in Residential Care

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

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

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

Reasonable and prudent parent standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard of care for residential and boarding schools

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

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

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

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

Expert role in assessing standards of care

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

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

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

Real case examples

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

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

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

School Liability for Student Field Trip Injuries or Death

field trip injuries

Adequate supervision is essential for prevention of field trip injuries.

For schools, summer camps, and day care centers, one of the key functions of student supervision is to identify dangerous conditions and then either stop the activity or warn of the danger. The supervisor must take appropriate action for the protection of the children. Duty to warn contemplates both having knowledge of danger (actual or constructive notice) and having time to communicate it.  Field trip injuries are very common and there is an equal duty to protect when children are off campus but still under school supervision, such as when children are on a school-sponsored trip. Excursions off school property present special challenges. Careful planning ahead of the trip, knowing about potential safety hazards, and creating a plan to avoid or mitigate them can help to protect a child from field trip injuries and a school from liability lawsuits.

The best defense against a claim of negligence is that has one or more of the four elements of negligence has not been proven: that a duty was not owed the injured, that reasonable care was exercised in performance of the act, that the act was not the proximate cause of the injury, or that there was no injury to the plaintiff. There will be times that the school will have done everything appropriate but a child still is injured. If the school can show that it exercised reasonable care, it will go a long way toward protecting the school from a lawsuit.

 

Adequate Planning is Essential  to Minimizing Risk of Field Trip Injuries

Being alert to potentially dangerous conditions at an offsite activity starts long before the activity itself. If a trip is planned for a picnic at a local park, for instance, the teacher or administrator should visit the park ahead of time to learn the layout and identify potential dangers on the property that may lead to field trip injuries. Are there any streams a child can fall into? Are there rough trails with loose rocks and tree trunks that can cause a child to trip? Is there a highway nearby that poses a risk to a child who wanders off from the group?

Informing the chaperones and children of the terrain, the hazards, and the safety rules ahead of time is most important. In providing written rules for the children, parents, and chaperones, a school articulates its policy and the behavior it expects from adult and child participants in order to protect students from field trip injuries. Through this type of planning and communication, the school creates a foundation for protecting it from liability should something go wrong.

It also is important to ensure that there are enough adults to provide adequate supervision at the event. In thinking about how many adults are needed, consider how many children will attend, their ages, and whether they have any disabilities or behavioral issues requiring special attention. A higher duty of care exists for a student with a disability or when a child’s Individual Education Program (IEP) requires specific attention to details to keep the student safe.  If a student requires a one-on-one aide at school for additional supervision, the same requirement extends for fieldtrips and other activities to minimize risk of field trip injuries.

 

Negligent Supervision of Students on School Field Trips

One of the cardinal rules of supervision on school field trips is to ensure that children do not leave sight of chaperones. The question of liability for injuries when children leave adult supervision without permission presents two factors. First, was there negligence in supervision on site that permitted the child to leave? If so, then that breach of duty would be the proximate cause of the injury. Second, was that type of injury foreseeable? If so, then failure to supervise a child in a way that could have prevented the injury would be negligence. For the school to be held open to liability, there must be proof that lack of supervision or that negligent supervision was a proximate cause of the accident.

Individuals who perform supervisory functions must conduct themselves as a reasonable person would under similar circumstances. Inappropriate behavior on the part of the supervisor may lead not only to a negligence suit in the case of student field trip injuries or death, but also to disciplinary action against the supervisor. As an example, in a Missouri case, two coaches took six high school boys and four female cheerleaders to a meet, where they stayed overnight. Evidence indicated that the coaches left the students unsupervised and the coaches attended a party and drank alcoholic beverages, and had allowed male and female students to sleep in the same rooms. The coaches were found to have engaged in inappropriate conduct when they abandoned the students and went partying and drinking. The court found that this behavior rendered them unfit to teach or supervise students.

Special attention must be given to the planning of off-campus trips with young children. In one such case, a kindergarten teacher planned a “safety day” class trip to a city-owned parking lot. The teacher planned this event in the same way she had for years, following board of education policies and seeking parent volunteers. Parents and children met at the school and rode with the teacher on a bus to the event. Just before arrival at the event, the teacher addressed the chaperones and said, “Please keep an eye on the children. We don’t want anyone to get lost.” What she did not do — and this turned out to be the proximate cause of a student’s death — was to assign specific students to each volunteer in order to prevent the risk of student field trip injuries.

At the event, the fire company brought a fire truck, the rescue squad brought an ambulance, and the police department set up “roads” with stop signs and walkways for children to practice safe street crossing. The police brought several electric golf carts to use as “cars” to make the scene as realistic as possible. After police officers finished conducting their demonstration of safe street crossing, three children climbed onto a golf cart, one hanging onto the front of the cart. An officer had left the cart idling, key still in the ignition. The cart drove straight ahead into the ambulance, crushing and instantly killing the child hanging on the front. Because several entities were involved in the event — the school, teacher, principal, volunteer chaperones, the police and fire departments, the EMT staff, and the municipal government that provided the parking lot, assignment of liability would likely be shared. The school, however, through the teacher who organized the event, was ultimately responsible for acting within the professional standard of care for supervision of children. Had chaperones been directed to supervise specific students at all times, it is likely that when the students climbed onto the golf cart, their chaperones would have stopped them.

Cases involving class trips can become quite complex when several agencies are involved. In a drowning case, a school had selected students to attend a leadership training program off campus. The school rented a nearby YMCA campsite that had several buildings suitable for overnight guests. There was also a third agency, the company providing the training program.

In this case, several students left the dormitory in the middle of the night, went to a nearby riverbank and took several boats into the river, even though signs strictly prohibited anyone from going into the water. When several students drowned, each of the three entities and many individuals became defendants. Sorting out supervisory responsibilities between the school, the training agency and the YMCA, assessing the capacity of the students to watch out for their own safety, and many additional elements became important when determining foreseeability, responsibility for supervision, proximate cause, and liability. In this case, proximate causation was determined through an assessment of whether the students’ misconduct would likely have been prevented had the duty to supervise been discharged.

 

Contributory Negligence for Student Field Trip Injuries

Questions of liability may arise from any number of unforeseen situations. Who bears the burden of liability when a student on a daytrip rents a bicycle, fails to wear a helmet, and sustains a head injury when he runs into a tree? What is the school’s liability if a child runs ahead of her group onto a highway, only to be seriously injured by a passing car? When a child’s own actions contribute in whole or part to wrongful death or serious injury, such circumstances can be a defense in certain situations.

As a court stated, a determination of contributory negligence involves several considerations:

  • Characteristics of the child (e.g., age, intelligence, experience, knowledge, or physical condition) that would influence her ability to detect dangerous conditions or appreciate the danger of a hazard observed
  • Physical facts, i.e., the extent to which the hazard is noticeable and the degree of alertness required to avoid such a hazard
  • The environment, be it the physical activities of the individual who was injured or killed or the movement, sound, or placement of other persons and objects in the setting.

For example, in the river drowning case described earlier, the question of contributory negligence was raised because the students who drowned were 17 and 18 years old, were determined to be intelligent because they had been selected for leadership training, were physically fit, and had the ability to detect the dangerous conditions of the river. A sign prohibiting swimming was clearly visible to a reasonable person, and there were no distractions at the scene that would have caused either of the students to lose concentration or momentarily forget that entering the river presented a danger of harm.

 

Summary

Supervision of children on the premises of a school, camp, or other entity is essential for protecting the health, safety and well-being of participants. Supervision of children at school-sponsored trips presents unique challenges and must be addressed in a different way. This is especially true when a group is planning to go to a place that is unfamiliar and may present challenges and dangers not typically considered.

Start with a clear, strong policy requiring administrative approval and a plan for the trip that includes safety and emergency responses. Consider how many children will attend, their ages, and how many adults are needed to supervise the children and protect them from harm. If the area is unfamiliar, the person in charge should visit in advance, making note of potential hazards and developing a plan to protect children from those hazards. Chaperones must know as much as possible about where the group is going, the potential hazards, who the children are and whether any have a particular disability, behavior problem or other characteristic requiring special attention, and which children are under their responsibility during the trip.

As an expert witness providing services for plaintiff and defendant attorneys on issues of negligent supervision and liability, I review the policies of schools and other entities and compare them against the facts of the case. This process provides insight as to whether the entity met its own standards by following its policies and whether contributory negligence was involved, leading us toward answers about questions of liability. When the facts are clear, an opinion may be rendered as to whether the entity acted appropriately and reasonably under the circumstances and within the professional standard of care.

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.

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.

School Liability and Negligent Supervision of Children with Disabilities

school liability for student injury

Schools and other agencies have a greater duty to supervise and care for the students in a manner specifically appropriate for the child’s disability.

For schools, daycare centers, after-school programs, and camps, children with disabilities often present significant supervisory challenges. If these children’s needs are not adequately addressed and a child is seriously injured or killed, negligent supervision may be viewed as a proximate cause. But what constitutes reasonable supervision of children with behavioral or physical disabilities? It depends on the unique needs of the student and a school’s standards for protecting that student from harm.

Students with developmental disabilities, autism, mental illness, or a physical disability require specialized programs and services, highly qualified personnel, or one-on-one assistance to protect them from harm. Thus, when a school is aware of the characteristics and needs of a child with a disability, its duty to supervise the student in a way that ensures his safety extends beyond the professional standard of care for the general student population. A student death or serious personal injury stemming from a failure to adhere to this higher standard may constitute negligent supervision and render the school liable for damages.

Student Safety and Supervision Standards

Consider a school or other agency that enrolls a child with behavioral or physical conditions that require specific interventions to keep him safe. In this case, the school or agency’s duty to supervise exceeds general or even specific supervision. General supervision is provided in a situation like recess on the playground, where two or three teachers supervise a group of students. Specific supervision is required when a student is engaged in an activity that presents an inherent danger if the student doesn’t receive careful instruction, such as the use of power tools during woodshop. For a child with a disability, however, the standard of care extends to a much more child-centered, individualized focus. In liability cases, the known characteristics of the child’s behavior or physical limitations frame an assessment of the reasonableness of supervision.

Is it reasonable for an elementary school principal to assign three playground aides to supervise 85 fifth-grade children, none of whom have any special needs, on a fenced-in playground after lunch? Is it reasonable for a residential treatment center administrator to approve an afternoon walk in a forest with 15 children and one teacher with the knowledge that one of the children has a history of running and leaving the protective supervision of staff?

The answers are “yes” in the first example and “no” in the second.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that a child with a disability who qualifies for special education and related services must have an individualized education program (IEP) tailored to his or her needs. When the child exhibits behavior problems that interfere with her education or the education of others or that might cause injury to her or other students, the IEP must include a behavioral plan. Once the school identifies the behavior issues and an intervention plan is developed, this becomes the professional standard of care specific to the student. The IEP addresses the type and level of supervision that the school has determined necessary to protect the child from harm.

Because the child in our example above has a history of running off during class trips, the appropriate professional standard would likely require that an additional aide accompany her on trips. If another child has a history of getting out of his seat on the bus, running up and down the aisles, and distracting the driver, the appropriate professional standard of care might be to assign a bus aide to him.

If the defined standard is breached and the child or others are injured, that breach might be considered a proximate cause of injury — and the concept of sovereign immunity would not apply. In the absence of immunity, courts have held upheld student injury lawsuits stemming from the negligent failure to provide a reasonably safe environment or adequate supervision.

Negligent Supervision

Last month, a 12-year-old student with autism disappeared from a Bronx, N.Y. school for hours before he was found in Times Square. He left his classroom and was seen running down a staircase. The details of this student’s history are publicly unknown, but if the school had any prior experience of this student leaving his classroom unsupervised, it would have been the school’s duty to provide individual close supervision for the student. It might have been necessary for a classroom aide to be with him, one-on-one, during the day to supervise his movements through the school. The school had an obligation to consider the student’s capacity, determine whether any related behaviors would likely place him in harm’s way, and take reasonable steps to prevent harm through appropriate supervision.

In this case, the student was found and no harm came to him. But his story could have been much different, as with the case of Avonte Oquendo, the 14-year-old boy who slipped past a security desk and disappeared from his Queens, N.Y., school last October. Oquendo, who has autism and cannot speak and was missing for months before he was found dead. The investigations into the circumstances of both cases continue.

In another example of potential negligence, the City School District of New Rochelle, N.Y., was ordered last August to pay compensatory damages after it failed to evacuate two students in wheelchairs during a fire emergency. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York found that New Rochelle High School violated the Americans With Disabilities Act in not having an evacuation plan for students with mobility impairments. The students, one of whom has cerebral palsy, were left in a third-floor classroom while the rest of the school was evacuated. School officials, who have contested the U.S. Attorney’s findings, said their plan for dealing with students with disabilities in an emergency was to get them to a “safe room” where first responders can find them, but the safe room closest to the students required maneuvering down stairs. New York State law, however, requires a full evacuation during an actual emergency.

Even if the school had been found in compliance with the law, clearly, this plan was inadequate for a child in a wheelchair. The school had a duty to consider the students’ disabilities and their inability to navigate stairs, and to plan adequately for their evacuation in the event of an emergency.

Court Rulings on School Liability

Though a school has a higher duty to supervise students with special needs, not every student injury is the result of negligence on the part of the school or its personnel. Again, liability depends on the circumstances. Let’s take a look at two cases.

In Montana, a teacher had forbidden a developmentally disabled student from using certain equipment in the playground. Her “rule” became the professional standard of care specific to this child. On the day he slid down a pole on this equipment, fell, and fractured his tibia, his teacher was absent. At the time of the accident, the substitute teacher and another were on the playground supervising students. The boy’s parents sued the district for failing to supervise their son properly. A jury determined that the substitute teacher had not acted negligently and held for the district.

The parents appealed to the state Supreme Court, which observed that a verdict cannot be reversed when it is supported by substantial credible evidence. In this case, the substitute teacher testified that she was watching five students — all of whom required special attention. All parties agreed that the substitute teacher had a duty to supervise the student closely. However, the fact that the substitute had failed to see this student climbing the equipment did not constitute a breach of duty (Morgan v. Great Falls School Dist. No. 1, 995 P.2d 422 [Mont. 2000]).

In this example, the professional standard of care was that the student was not to play on the equipment. However, the focus in this case was not this standard, but on the general supervision that was provided at the time. Regardless of the standard, the court determined that because the substitute teacher was providing supervision, as required, the school was not liable for his injury. In other words, the teacher was doing her job. Would the result have been different if the complaint focused on the playground rule set by the teacher and the duty of the school to ensure that the substitute teacher enforced the rule?

In Louisiana, a student with spina bifida and hydrocephalus was unable to walk. The school provided transportation in a specially equipped bus. A bus aide was required to secure the student in the wheelchair with a lap restraint, but neither the wheelchair nor the bus provided the means of securing his upper body. After picking up the student, the bus driver backed the bus into a car as his mother watched. She asked the child if he was hurt. The boy didn’t respond, and the mother permitted him to continue to school. When he returned home with a bruised forehead and complained of head and back pain, however, the family took him to an emergency room. The family sued the school board, seeking reimbursement for treatment costs. A court found the school liable for the boy’s injuries.

An appeals court found ample evidence that the student’s injuries were caused by the accident. There was also sufficient evidence to show that the student had suffered ongoing physical pain as the result of the accident. The court affirmed the judgment (Marshall v. Caddo Parish School Bd., 743 So.2d 943 [La.Ct.App. 1999]).

In this case, would the student have been protected from harm if the child’s upper body had been secured? More than likely, he would not have been injured. This raises an important question: Would a reasonable person know that if the child’s upper body was not secure in his wheelchair and there was an accident, the child would likely become injured? If injury is foreseeable, it is the responsibility of those in charge to assure safety. This student’s safety could be reasonably assured if those in charge had provided him with a wheelchair and a bus equipped to secure him both across his lap and upper body.

Summary

When schools and other agencies responsible for the care of children have knowledge that a student’s behavioral or physical disability may place that student or others at higher risk of being seriously injured or killed, they have a higher duty to supervise students in a manner specifically appropriate for the child’s condition. A reasonable standard of care is tailored to the student’s unique history and needs. Failure to establish and follow such a standard may leave a school liable in the event of a casualty.

If the symptoms of a child’s disability suggest to a reasonable person that the student might be injured or even killed without special supervision and the responsibility for providing it is not carried out, the school will likely be held liable in the event of a student death or injury. If, on the other hand, the school provided an appropriate IEP and level of supervision but an injury still occurred, the school is unlikely to be held liable. Assessing the individual characteristics, emotional, and physical needs of students with disabilities and developing an appropriate safety plan is a clear duty of the school.

School Liability under Section 1983

school liability

School liability under section 1983

Schools have a duty to protect students from harm, including the harm inflicted or created by its own staff. While acts by a staff member resulting in injury to a student generally fit into the category of negligence, a teacher or an administrator as a state actor can generate a state-created danger.

The difference with state-created danger, as opposed to negligence, is its application under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and Section 1983 of Chapter 42 of the United States Code. School officials can be held responsible when they knew of impending danger, were recklessly indifferent to it, and through the authority vested in them by the state (public school board of education), knowingly created a dangerous environment that led to an otherwise preventable injury. Liability under Section 1983 can be imposed on a school district if a student’s deprivation of rights is consistent with a school or district’s custom or policy, or if it results from an act of those who are ultimately responsible for setting policy in that area of school business (see City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112 [1988]).

Section 1983 has been used to seek monetary damages for violations of what courts refer to as bodily integrity, which is protected by the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits “unjustified intrusions on personal security.” Most cases involving bodily integrity in schools concern sexual molestation, although excessive corporal punishment may also implicate this right. Educators who deliberately cause serious harm to a student, such as in the case of a coach who put a student’s eye out by hitting him with a metal object (Neal ex rel. Neal v. Fulton County Board of Education, 229 F.3d 1069 [11th Cir. 2000]), may be sued under Section 1983 for due process violations if one or more of the conditions below are met.

Section 1983 is used to bring suit only against individuals whose actions are attributable to the state, and cannot be employed against a private wrongdoer (DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 [1989]). Minor injuries that result from a teacher deliberately hitting a student — or even serious injuries that result from a teacher’s own negligence or deliberate indifference — do not violate the Due Process Clause. In one case, for instance, a court ruled that a teacher’s repeated humiliation of a student was not a due process violation (Costello v. Mitchell Public School District 79, 266 F.3d 916 [8th Cir. 2001]). Another court, however, has said that there may be a due process violation when an educator’s deliberate action “shocks the conscience” and increases the danger to a student. In that case, which involved a violent, 16-year-old special education student who had threatened to kill himself, school officials sent the boy home without notifying his parents (Armijo Chavez v. Wagon Mound Public Schools, 159 F.3d 1253 [10th Cir. 1998]).

Conditions for liability under Section 1983

A school district and/or its officials or employees may be held liable under Section 1983 if any of the following conditions are met:

  • The wrongdoing was undertaken pursuant to a custom or a formal policy of the district, the individual who committed the wrongful act was an official with final policymaking authority, or an official with final authority ratified a subordinate’s wrongful act (Gillette v. Delmore, 979 F.2d 1342 [9th Cir. 1992]). As an example, failure to have a formal policy for dealing with sexual harassment might expose a district to Section 1983 liability because the lack of a policy indicates a custom of tolerating sexual harassment (Doe v. Estes, 926 F. Supp. 979 [D. Nev. 1996]).
  • A school official with the authority to take corrective action had actual notice of wrongdoing under Section 1983 and was deliberately indifferent (Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274 [1998]). This Title IX standard can be applied in Section 1983 cases as well. Inadequate hiring policies (Doe v. Hillsboro Independent School District, 81 F.3d 1395 [5th Cir. 1996]) or training of employees (City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 [1989]; Doe v. Estes, 926 F. Supp. 979 [D. Nev. 1996]), for instance, may be viewed as forms of indifference.
  • A school district’s action either exposed students to dangers that they otherwise would not have faced or it increased the risks associated with existing dangers (Johnson v. Dallas Independent School District, 38 F.3d 198 [5th Cir. 1994]; Leffall v. Dallas Independent School District, 28 F.3d 521 [5th Cir. 1994]). The mere fact that a student’s rights were violated at school, or that a violator was a teacher, does not mean that a state-created danger exists. Rather, it must be shown that the school exposed a student to people with a known propensity for harming the plaintiff, or that it provided such people with an opportunity to injure the student (Plumeau v. Yamhill County School District, 907 F. Supp. 1423 [D. Ore. 1995]). Assigning a student of known violent propensities to the class of an inadequately trained teacher, for instance, is the kind of step that could lead to liability (Compare Cornelius v. Town of Highland Lake, 880 F.2d 348 [11th Cir. 1989]).

Plaintiffs who allege state-created danger must demonstrate four elements in a Section 1983 claim:

  1. A relationship existed between the school and the student.
  2. The harm to the student was ultimately foreseeable and fairly direct.
  3. The school willfully disregarded the student’s safety.
  4. The school used its authority to create an opportunity that otherwise would not have existed for injury to occur.

Foreseeability and willful disregard

In school cases, plaintiffs’ claims usually center on the failure of a school district to prevent dangerous situations that adversely affect a student’s right to be protected from harm. Teachers, principals, and other staff, by the nature of their relationship with students, have an affirmative duty to protect students in dangerous situations. As an example, if a principal or other school official charged with the responsibility of teacher supervision receives a complaint from a parent, a student, a teacher, or other staff member that a teacher is yelling at students, hitting them on their knuckles with a ruler, pushing their heads into their desks with force, pinching them, or abusing them in other ways, the school official has an affirmative duty to investigate quickly and thoroughly, and to take steps to end the abuse. Any reasonable school administrator would foresee harm to students if the behavior continued. Not taking complaints seriously or conducting only a minimal investigation may be considered acting with deliberate indifference to the mistreatment of children, thus creating a dangerous environment that can lead to a lawsuit under Section 1983.

Another hypothetical case illustrates another example of a possible Section 1983 claim. An experienced special education teacher was responsible for the education, safety, and welfare of a class of eight children with disabilities. These students had expressive language disorders — rendering it impossible, or at best unlikely, that they would be able to verbalize to anyone that their teacher was abusing them. Two teacher aides, recent college graduates with teaching degrees, assisted the teacher in the classroom. The teacher aides saw the teacher physically abuse the students, but did not report the teacher’s actions to the appropriate law enforcement agency or the state agency responsible for the protection of children. The aides had a legal duty to protect the students from harm, but failed to exercise that duty; as such, the school administration had no notice that it was occurring. When the abuse finally came to light by a parent who asked about bruises on her son, the teacher aides admitted to having witnessed the abuse but said they were afraid to report the teacher to the principal. They also denied knowing that they had a legal responsibility to contact authorities outside of the school.

Though the administration had no notice that students were being mistreated, the situation may be viewed as a failure to provide adequate training. Through its administration, the school acted indifferently to student abuse when it did not ensure that the aides understood their duty to report abuse when they see it. This failure to train allowed a situation that otherwise would not have been present to persist — resulting in continual harm to the students.

Any reasonable school administrator would foresee that if the abuse in these examples went unchecked, the harm to students would be fairly direct. In both cases, it may be determined that the school acted in willful disregard for the safety of the students. In the first case, had no or minimal investigation taken place, the school could be found to have responded unreasonably to the danger students faced. In the second case, no training was provided that could have prevented a dangerous situation.

Student on student abuse under Section 1983

Up to now, we have focused on the actions of school personnel in describing scenarios for Section 1983 liability. In 2009, the Supreme Court held in Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee that a plaintiff can bring a claim for student-to-student sexual harassment under Section 1983 (Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee, 555 U.S. 246 [2009]). The case details of paint a disturbing picture of elementary school-level, student-on-student sexual harassment. A kindergarten girl told her parents that each time she wore a dress on the school bus, a third-grade boy would coerce her into lifting her skirt or pulling down her underpants and spreading her legs. The police, however, were unable to corroborate her story and did not bring criminal charges against the boy. The school’s own investigation ended without disciplinary measures against the boy. Subsequently, the boy continued to bully the girl.

The justices ruled unanimously that Title IX protections did not preclude Section 1983 liability. Thus, the Barnstable case opened the door for students who are bullied and harassed to hold individual school officials liable under Section 1983, for permitting sexual harassment by other students.

Damages under Section 1983

Students suing under Section 1983 are entitled to recover only nominal damages unless they can show actual loss (Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247 [1978]; Memphis Community School District v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299 [1986]). The damage award is not based on the value or importance of the violated right, but only on the actual injuries suffered. Students may also be able to obtain punitive damages against individual defendants who act with malice. Punitive damages against a school district itself are not permitted because the Supreme Court has reasoned that punitive damages against a government entity would punish taxpayers, and that only individuals — not government entities — can act with malice (City of Newport v. Fact Concerts Inc., 453 U.S. 247 [1981]).

It must be emphasized, however, that liability can be imposed on a school district if a policy or custom results in deprivation of rights, or if the acts of the highest officials responsible for setting policy in the school deprives a student of his or her due process guarantees (City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112 [1988]). As such, even with limitations on damages, students who win Section 1983 lawsuits can sometimes recover large awards.

What attorneys should review

For both defendant and plaintiff attorneys, the question to answer in such cases is: Did the school, through its administration and/or other employees, act affirmatively and with deliberate indifference in creating, or enhancing, a foreseeable danger to the student, leading to the deprivation of constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment?

If the school had culpable knowledge, and if its administration and/or other employees, conducted themselves in a way that affirmatively placed the student in a position of danger, a Section 1983 claim may be relevant. For liability to exist, the situation created by the school must be dangerous; the school must know that it is dangerous; and it must have used its authority to create an opportunity that would not otherwise have existed in which the student suffered harm.