Schools have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of their students. This concept dates back to Title IX, established over fifty years ago to protect against gender discrimination in educational institutions. Today, this same doctrine is used to create policies and procedures that are designed to prevent bullying, harassment, and other forms of violence in the school setting. As a result, it is essential for school districts to develop and implement policies and programs that promote safety and provide support to those who have been affected by violence.
As technology advances, the scope of responsibility for school districts is expanding beyond the traditional boundaries. What was once confined to school hours, grounds, and activities may now potentially extend into new times and places-- requiring schools to provide an even higher level of student monitoring and protection. This shift in duty brings with it a whole host of challenges that must be addressed to ensure the safety and well-being of students. By taking time to embrace these changing demands, school districts can create more secure learning environments for everyone.
Examples of Negligent Supervision in Schools
Negligent supervision in schools can lead to serious injuries and even death. One example of this occurred in a recent California case, where a high school student was assaulted after leaving practice early and waiting for a ride home in the girls’ locker room. The school argued that they were not responsible for her injury because its duty ended when practice ended and she left campus so that she was no longer “on school grounds, during school hours, for a school-related activity.” However, the court found that a school district’s responsibility to provide a safe environment includes taking reasonable measures to protect students from foreseeable harm, even after practice ends. The court acknowledged the special bond between schools and their students, ruling that school districts have a duty to use reasonable measures to protect their students from foreseeable harm. In this case, the student had returned to the campus, which was open to the public after classes ended, and her short time away from school was irrelevant. The supervision on campus concluded at 4:00 pm, though practice and the locker rooms were not secured until 6:00 pm.
In another case, a middle school special education student was dropped off an hour before classes started, and was sodomized by another student in a school restroom. In this case, the court held that the school district had breached its duty of care when it allowed students to enter campus but provided no adult supervision. They also found that the school had a statutory duty to provide adequate protection for its students and that parents were relying on them to do so.
In these cases, as well as many others not discussed here, there is a general understanding that school districts have a duty to provide a safe and secure environment for their students even before classes begin and after the last bell rings.This obligation may not be strictly defined and vary from state to state; however, it is important for school districts to take reasonable steps to protect their students if it is likely that they could be harmed. For instance, if kids are left unsupervised and may put themselves or each other in danger, or an outsider could pose a threat, it is essential for school districts to take action. Failing to do so could make them liable for any injury or death that occurs, thus school districts should take reasonable steps to prevent harm.
Steps to Prevent Harm
The concept of "reasonableness" is highly contested in various court cases and state laws. Schools must often consider the cost associated with measures such as locked campuses, security guards, and before- and after-hours supervision when determining what is reasonable. Unfortunately, even one instance where a student gets injured or experiences harm due to lack of supervision can call these priorities into question.
The concept of foreseeability is also important when considering what is reasonable. It must be considered if it is foreseeable that students will have access to school grounds before or after classes, and if so, what steps could reasonably be taken to prevent potential injuries or harm. Ultimately, schools must weigh the cost versus the risk of not providing adequate supervision, and make the best decision for their students.
The answer to what is reasonable may vary depending on the situation, but it is important for schools to assess the potential risks and take appropriate measures to ensure that all students are safe. This is especially true when considering unsupervised playgrounds, bathrooms, or other areas of the school.
One of our goals at McGrath Training Solutions is to prevent physical and emotional injuries by addressing potential problems before they arise. If you are considering placing additional safety measures such as increased supervision or security staff, consider the following questions:
Is your campus easily accessible to the public at all hours or only during certain times?
At what time do students typically arrive before classes?
At what time do students typically depart campus?
Who is responsible for locking classrooms, restrooms, facilities, and locker rooms?
Who is responsible for supervising locker rooms after school but during athletic practices and games?
Does the school district provide security guards or private officers to maintain order?
Are there any surveillance cameras in place that are monitored?
Are there areas where students congregate before and after classes, and is anyone assigned to supervise them?
Are parents aware that supervision is offered prior to and following class?
What areas should be supervised and what will the associated costs be?
In general, how long before and after classes should supervision be provided?
Though it may never be possible to guarantee absolute safety on campus, there are ways to reduce the likelihood of injury or harm. Taking proactive steps now can help ensure that your students, staff, and parents feel secure and reduce liability for the school district. Investing in a comprehensive security plan for your school is an important step toward creating a safe learning environment. Doing so will help to ease worries and prevent potential issues before they arise.
School District Liability
School districts may be held liable for bullying, harassment, or discrimination that takes place on school grounds, in the school's custody, or on the school bus. Cyberbullying and harassment through a school computer or laptop, as well as cyberbullying and harassment that was done with a personal device on school grounds, can also result in liability for a school district. Federal funding recipients such as public schools are liable for harassment based on a protected class if it is so severe, pervasive, and offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to educational benefits. For a school district or board to be held liable, an official with authority to address the behavior must have had knowledge of it. In some states, schools may have immunity from lawsuits when their employees act within their discretionary functions and do not act maliciously, in bad faith, or with wanton or reckless disregard.
Schools must also ensure that their staff is trained to recognize and respond appropriately to bullying, harassment, and discrimination incidents. Schools must have policies in place and procedures for responding to, documenting, and addressing complaints. They should have a systematic process for investigating concerns and complaints promptly, providing victims with support services as needed, and disciplining perpetrators as appropriate. By creating a safe and welcoming environment, schools can help prevent bullying, harassment, and discrimination from occurring and protect students from further harm.
Ultimately, if a school is found liable for bullying, harassment, or discrimination that has occurred on their premises or in their care, they may have to pay damages as well as be subject to other legal remedies. Schools must take all reports seriously, investigate them thoroughly and promptly, and take appropriate actions to prevent further incidents. Taking the necessary steps can help protect students from harm and ensure that schools are not held liable for any future incidents.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces civil rights statutes such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. OCR can consider a school district responsible for creating or allowing a hostile environment if the harassment is based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability and it has not been properly addressed or was ignored by school employees.
Violations of a duty of care can also result in personal injury lawsuits. The statute of limitations generally requires that legal action is taken within 2 to 3 years from the time of an incident. These claims may request compensation for medical bills and other tangible damages, as well as any mental trauma caused to the victim or their family. Thus, it is important for school administrators to be aware of the legal repercussions associated with these situations.
The following examples (w/links) provide a snapshot of legislative trends and are not exhaustive.
Prevention Guidance/ Policies
Taskforce/ Studies/ Commissions
Professional Training & Development
Student & Parental Rights
In California, The California Education Code requires that all students have the right to participate fully in the educational process, free from discrimination and harassment. In order to combat racism, sexism, and other forms of bias, public schools must provide equal educational opportunity and take measures to prevent and respond to acts of hate, violence, and bias-related incidents. Schools are also tasked with teaching and informing students about their rights and the rights of others, in order to promote tolerance and sensitivity. Moreover, under California EDC 48900.2, a student may be suspended for an act of sexual harassment if it has a negative impact on their academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment; however, this does not apply to pupils enrolled in kindergarten and grades 1 to 3.
At McGrath Training Solutions, we have been working with school districts for over forty years to protect students and staff from bullying, harassment, and discrimination and respond promptly and effectively when incidents do occur. Learn how and what you can do to protect your students and staff from harm and your district from liability. Give us a call at 800.733.1638 and we will review your policies and work with you to make sure your students and staff are safe and secure.