February 23, 2018

Managing the Risk to Prevent Injury and Student Death

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Risk Management and Care of Students with Disabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Professional Standard of Care Defined

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Legal and Professional Standards of Care for Children with Disabilities

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

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

Student Safety: Screening and Background Checks for School Volunteers

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

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

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

 

State Requirements for Volunteer Screenings and Background Checks

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

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

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

 

Student Safety in Specialized Programs and Placements

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

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

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

 

Student Safety and Standard of Professional Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Duty Under In Loco Parentis

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

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

 

Professional Standard of Care

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

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

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

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

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

 

Training and Oversight are Essential to Avoid Residential Program Liability

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

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

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

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

 

Summary

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

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

Student Injury and Standard of Professional Care Analysis in Schools

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

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

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

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

 

Student Injury Lawsuits and Professional Standards of Care

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

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

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

 

Professional Standard and School Liability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Caring for children with special healthcare needs

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

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

 

When is a school or child care agency held liable?

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

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

 

Implementing a plan to avoid life-threatening events

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Assessment of Liability: Child Abuse and Injury in Residential Care

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

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

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

Reasonable and prudent parent standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard of care for residential and boarding schools

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

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

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

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

Expert role in assessing standards of care

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

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

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

Real case examples

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

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

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

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.