When it comes to keeping students safe, there are many different ways in which a school duty to protect students can apply - and many different ways in which schools can lapse in their duty of care. We discuss some of these areas and the ways in which schools can mitigate the consequences of lapses.
Sometimes it is difficult to know where a duty to protect students starts and finishes. We live in an era in which modern technology can help or hinder student safety. Teachers are under increasing pressure to improve academic and sporting achievements, while schools may face legal consequences from parents if a student sustains an injury. These two issues may seem difficult to reconcile, but with an appropriate safety plan teachers can push their students to be their best while putting their safety first.
If a parent does pursue legal action over an injury sustained on campus, a situation may become more complicated if different courts delivering differing opinions about similar events - and this is not a new phenomenon. The difficulty in fulfilling a school duty to protect students has been present for decades; only now a school´s duty of care is often under increased scrutiny due to the unparalleled speed of communication channels such as the Internet and social media. Amid these challenges, technology does provide new ways for schools to fulfill their obligation to keep students safe.
There is no Clear School Duty to Protect Students
Although federal grants exist to encourage schools to be violence-free, drug-free and alcohol-free, there is no federal law mandating a school duty to protect students. Different opinions have been handed down as to whether the U.S. constitution imposes a special duty of care on schools - with two different appeals courts ruling within weeks of each other that state attendance laws do/do not place pupils in the functional custody of school officials during school hours.
State laws may or may not exist intended to prevent student-on-student physical and sexual abuse, and whereas half of U.S. states have passed legislation to prevent cyber-bullying in educational facilities, schools have not been provided with the resources required to comply with the legislation or enforce Codes or Conduct outlining the rights and responsibilities of students. Nonetheless, a quick search of legal action recently taken against schools will reveal claims for:
- Schools allegedly infringing students' civil rights.
- Schools failing to prevent student-on-student sexual abuse.
- Schools failing to prevent bulling and cyber-bullying.
- Injuries sustained during school-sanctioned activities.
- The failure to recognize student mental health issues.
More recently, a Connecticut Superior Court judge threw out a wrongful death action brought by the parents of two boys who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012. The plaintiffs alleged there had been a failure in the school duty to protect students. However, Judge Robin Wilson wrote in his judgement: “Emergencies, by their very nature, are sudden and often rapidly evolving events, and a response can never be one hundred percent scripted and directed.”
Lapses in the Duty of Care and How to Mitigate the Consequences
Teachers and school officials cannot have eyes in the back of their heads to protect students wherever they go. However, the National Schools Board Association has identified several areas in which lapses in the duty of care can be prevented - the most important one according to Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services, being to ensure that school personnel are aware of, and follow, school district procedures.
Trump also claims that many school districts do not provide the training for teachers and school officials to be aware of the circumstances that result in litigation. He believes it is essential that district leaders develop a well-conceived and effective schedule of school safety practices - focusing foremost on school security, but also leveraging technology to prevent school safety issues and mitigate the consequences when a lapse or unforeseeable incident occurs.
One such technology is a panic button app that alerts 9-1-1 to emergency incidents and accelerates the dispatch of first responders. An app can save lives and reduce emergency response time during a school shooting, fire or medical emergency, or any other critical event. School medical personnel can also be summoned individually if the incident only requires minor medical attention.
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