Areas of Negligence Must be Addressed in the Educational Environment
Accusations of negligence in the school setting have been, and continue to be, a problem in the educational system of the United States. While negligence affect students, parents, teachers, and support staff, the issue should genuinely concern administrators, who need to be focusing on the education of students rather than defending the teachers and their schools in a court of law. Legal records show that the term "educational malpractice" was first utilized in 1977 (Donohue v. Copiagugue Union School District, 1977). While accusations of negligence do not always determine a teacher is guilty of educational malpractice, the fear of this possibility should have administrators on their toes. If administrators are not aware of what constitutes negligence, they have little hope of having a staff that is aware and practicing safe habits and routines at all times during the school day. While some aspects of teaching rely heavily on common sense to avoid student injuries, not all teachers understand how their presence in a classroom could avoid a lawsuit. Very few educators in Indiana, if any, are required to take an education law class before earning teaching certificates. Due to this, administrators must lead the way to safer buildings, safer classrooms, and safer instruction. Administrators must compel their staffs to become more aware of negligence during instruction, supervision, and equipment maintenance so that administrators do not have to spend valuable time reacting to accusations of negligence. Negligence is not an issue that is going to fade away, and it is imperative that awareness is established in every school building across the United States.
Statement of the Problem
The definition of negligence is "want of care" (Alexander & Alexander, 1998). While negligence is not always easy to prove due to four prerequisites that must exist, accusations of negligence are continuing to plague administrators on a daily basis across the United States. The prerequisites are a legal duty to protect a given student from unreasonable risks of injury, the breach of the duty to protect students, proof that the breach was the direct cause of the injury, and a loss or harm result from the injury (Alexander & Alexander, 1984). Torts are legally defined as civil misdeeds "for which a court will afford a remedy to the injured party in the form of damages" (Alexander & Alexander, 1984). While torts can include many areas, "the tort on which most actions will be brought against teachers in a court of law is that of negligence" (Sewall, 1995).
The purpose of this project is to encourage administrators to take a more active role in training their staff regarding issues of negligence. The three areas that administrators need to address are instruction, supervision, and maintenance of equipment. While many administrators would like to believe that teachers are aware of how to avoid being negligent, administrators are asking for trouble if they do not address the needed changes in procedures, classes, activities, etc. with the entire staff. Principals must also be acquainted with the most common areas of negligence in order to avoid potential lawsuits. Administrators, as well as teachers, are responsible for protecting students while they are on school property.
Research Sadly, many teachers have not had training in the legal ramifications for leaving students unattended. Principals should take it upon themselves to educate their staffs about the necessity of supervising students constantly. Administrators may be surprised to learn that more than fifty percent of lawsuits are the result of student injury (Jones, 1998). While one would like to think that the likelihood of a student becoming injured or even dying, is atypical in many schools, principals need to make the avoidance of injuries a priority. Principals who wait to react, rather than becoming proactive, are placing themselves in a dangerous position. "Teachers . . .are seldom provided information concerning the legal responsibilities which are associated with their work or the potential ramifications of a failure to fulfill their duties of instruction and supervision" (Sewall, 1995). Administrators who decide teachers are individuals who should "know" their responsibilities because they are professionals are putting themselves at great risk.
Because many legal cases are a result of student injury, principals need to be aware of how to make supervision easier for teachers to reduce the number of preventable student injuries with adequate supervision. Attorneys encourage the basic, legal training of staff and volunteers on the subject of their duties because of the premise that knowledge may prevent liability issues from occurring (Jones, 1998). Administrators must direct that teachers watch students to the best of their abilities at all times. When teachers leave students unattended, activities can take place that lead to the injury of students. The court cleared a teacher of the charges of negligence during an absence from a Physical Education class while retrieving supplies out of a storage shed because the court ruled that even if the teacher had been present the accident would have taken place without the teacher being able to intervene to prevent the injury (Stevens v. Cheeston, 1999).
Principals must go a step further and lessen the daily duties that require the teachers be in more than one place at a time to adequately supervise all of the students. While the courts have been understanding of teachers placed in undesirable situations, administrators should still take steps to alert the staff as to the importance of not taking supervision for granted. Teachers are in loco parentis, in place of the parents and are "expected to act like diligent and sensible parents" (Squelch, 1996). Even when a teacher is not with all students at all times, and an injury to a child occurs, "willful and wanton negligence must be present since this is the same standard imposed on the parents of students" (Kaiser, 1993). This idea of the courts was determined when a court found that a teacher was not guilty while supervising a majority of the thirty students in the hallway at the same time a pencil struck a child’s eye inside the classroom (Simonetti v. School District of Philadelphia, 1982).
Teachers should always do their best to watch and supervise students throughout the activities during the school day. Administrators must remember that injuries are likely to occur in extracurricular activities as well. All too often the extracurricular sports are coached by laypersons who are hired into coaching positions because not enough teachers are available to cover all of the sports offered at the school. Because the school usually sponsors extracurricular activities at school, parents can bring charges of negligence against a coach, school, or school system; principals should be prepared to address safety issues and negligence issues with any adult working with students. Parents sued a school district in Texas because their son had died of heat exhaustion during a football practice. The courts ruled in favor of the parents on the basis that the school was responsible to protect students from bodily harm (Dowling-Sender, 1998). This incident might not occurred if the administrator had followed the advice of Risk Management and practiced Loss Control Activities (Gaustad, 1994). The Risk Management system determines that the administrator must overrule double practices during the summer, under extreme heat. Administrators have no choice but to confront coaches who are acting on the best interest of the sport rather than the players.
Sports in school not only require diligent supervision, but they also require the proper maintenance of equipment. Principals must address maintenance of the school building, playground, school grounds, and equipment used by students and staff. The key is for administrators to remain proactive rather than reactive. One particular proactive measure is for the administration to place an individual in charge of checking the physical equipment on a daily basis before students are present (Gaustad, 1994). Herbert Drumond, from the Ohio Department of Education, takes this idea a step further by insisting that anything found needing improvement must be put into writing for the administrator on a daily basis (2001). Principals must also stress this issue with the adults working with students through sports or extracurricular activities. Unless someone is in charge of making sure the equipment is safe on a daily basis, the adults working with students must not assume that the equipment is in usable condition.
The fact of the matter is that administrators need to alert the faculty that everyone together can help to reduce the claims of negligence that surface during the school year. A system must be established that will allow a teacher to place a maintenance request for areas of that classroom that need attention. Teachers must be instructed to discontinue the use of knowingly faulty equipment. When a student tripped over a condensation pipe in a culinary arts classroom, the court ruled against the school because the schools are responsible for keeping their premises in reasonably safe condition (Harig v. Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, 1994). The same must become true for science classrooms that use lab equipment, for playgrounds that have recreational facilities used by children, and for Physical Education classes that utilize equipment for instruction. The faculty and administration must work together to keep the school safe for all students.
Many teachers are not aware that negligence during instructional time is also a common area of negligence accusations cropping up in America’s schools. The primary goal of teachers during the school day is to get across the content of the curriculum. While instruction is the chief responsibility of teachers, students and parents are finding reasons for accusing teachers of being negligent during this important process. "Virtually all teachers, administrators and higher educators who work in the formation of teachers have heard of legal actions brought relative to the failure of schools to teach students needed skills in reading and mathematics" (Sewall, 1995). Anytime that a child is denied the opportunity to receive an education, a lawsuit could be pending. Children who are misclassified as learning disabled and unable to receive an education due to their placements have great cases. This happened when a child was misclassified as "retarded" in New York in the late 70’s (Hoffman v. Board of Education, 1978). This, unfortunately, is not a lone case in the legal archives. Students who have a normal intelligence and a learning disability who receive no adaptations to help them achieve also have cases pending in courts all over the country. This situation took place in Alaska in the early 1980’s when a school was sued for not effectively teaching a child with a learning disability(D.S.W. v. Fairbanks, 1981).
It is the true charge of the teacher to try to teach students to the best of their abilities, follow the curriculum implicitly, and make the best effort possible to reach the needs of all students. More and more parents are becoming aware of their rights when their children are being instructed in the classroom. This is especially true of parents who have children with learning disabilities in the school system. It is the charge of the school’s administrator to do everything possible to make sure teachers are following the curriculum and are helping students to learn the material on a daily basis. While not all children can be forced to learn, which courts have recognized in some decisions, the children who want to learn should not be left behind because a teacher was unaware of Special Education laws, the curriculum, or even how to instruct properly.
Administrators have no choice but to do everything possible to help avoid charges of negligence. While not all charges are avoidable, the administrators must do everything within their power to make sure that teachers are aware of the issues regarding negligence within the school. Principals need to recognize that not all teachers in their building have the knowledge of negligence revolving around supervision, instruction, and equipment maintenance.
The schools job is to protect students. This protection should be physical and intellectual-all students should be safe once they enter the school grounds, and all schools should be able to guaranteed knowledge which is current and meeting the standards of the state. No principal should be comfortable offering less than those minimal expectations. While principals have no control over what is happening in a classroom when the door closes, principals must feel safe in the fact that they have educated their staff about negligence and the expectations of the school; to do less than this is, perhaps, negligent on the part of the principal.
Principals need to put a plan into place on how to educate their staff about negligence in the areas of supervision, instruction, and equipment maintenance. After the staff is aware of their legal responsibilities on how to protect students, they should work with the principal to abandon the activities that involve the most unnecessary risk. Principals should also work with their staff to instruct students on the safest way to use equipment found within the building. Principals should increase the expectations for hallway monitoring during the passing periods of secondary schools, and make sure that teachers are more visible to decrease the possibility of students getting into fights that could put the school at risk of being negligent of protecting all students.
If principals are at a loss for how to begin, they should follow the three steps outlined in Risk Management: (1) Create procedures and policies for all classes, laboratory work, recess supervision, etc., (2) Communicate the policies and procedures to every adult working within the building, and (3) enforce these policies and procedures consistently and diligently (Gaustad, 1994). Negligence charges can almost always be avoided if the teachers are attentive about making sure they are doing everything possible to protect students. Because so many teachers today are unaware of the legal ramifications for negligence, the burden is placed on the shoulders of the administrators to educate their staff. It is then the responsibility of every person in a leadership position, whether paid or voluntary, to follow the policies and procedures to ensure a safe and productive learning environment for every student.
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Donohue V. Copiague Union Sch. Dist., 408 N.Y.S.2d 584 (1977), aff’d, 407 N.Y.S.D.2d 874 (1978), aff’d, 391 N.E.2d 1352 (N.Y. 1979).
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D.S.W. v. Fairbanks, 628 P.2d 554 (Alaska, 1981)
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Harig v. Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, 635 S.2d 485 (LA Ct. App. 1994)
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Squelch, J. & Squelch, A. (1996). School excursions and the law. [19 paragraphs]. Volume 2, Number 1. [On-Line Serial]. Available: http://www.edulaw.com.za/SchExcr1.htm
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