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.
Standard 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.
Title IX, the law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in public education programs, is also relevant in application of professional standards within the context of private school sexual abuse and harassment and their response to alleged incidents. Every school that accepts federal funding for any program or service it provides must adhere to Title IX. Most public schools, including charter schools and specialized education service commissions, accept federal assistance and, therefore, must comply with Title IX. Compliance requirements include, among other things, the development of policies prohibiting sexual harassment and assault, prompt and thorough investigation of complaints, training of staff, and the assignment of a person who oversees implementation of the law.
All Sawyer wanted to do was to protect himself from bullies and the mean kids in middle school. He wrote to his guidance counselor, "I would like to let you know that the bullying has increased. I would like to figure out some coping mechanisms to deal with these situations, and I would just like to put this on file so if something happens again, we can show that there was past bullying situations."
Parents 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.
Under Title IX, for a school to be held liable for denying an educational opportunity to a student who was sexually harassed or abused, the court must be convinced that the school had actual notice of prohibited behavior and that it acted deliberately indifferent to it. Often, it is a challenge to define what "actual notice" is and whether the school had such notice. If the school has no information on which to act to end harassment or abuse, it cannot be determined to be indifferent. In some of the cases we have worked on, however, there has been some level of notice that, if investigated, would have confirmed that harassment or abuse was taking place. Such notice could be a teacher hearing a rumor about a sexual relationship between another teacher and a student, a staff member watching a student speak in a sexually inappropriate way to another student, or the school receiving notice that that an off-campus sexual violence event is creating retaliation at school. Examples such as these may constitute actual notice, depending on the circumstances.
Whenever children are involved in events on school premises, there is always the possibility of school district liability for incidents that happen on school grounds or at school-sponsored events. This foreseeability gives rise to a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent a child from being harmed. Public school districts may find themselves liable for injury - not only for those suffered by their own students, but also for those incurred by children who are invited onto school grounds, who attend separate programs on school grounds, and even those who are considered trespassers.
Schools, including K-12 schools, colleges, and universities, have a responsibility to protect their students from harm. Harm includes the inability to benefit fully from education as a result of being in a hostile school environment. The politically motivated rhetoric and actions seen in schools during and after the presidential campaign can create a hostile school environment for which schools can be held responsible.
Schools, 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.
Protection of the health, safety, and well-being of children who participate in recreational activities at a summer camp, summer school program, or community and private recreation centers should be the standard operating procedure of all those who provide these services. The standard of care owed to children who participate in organized or sponsored recreational activities such as sports, dance, swimming, rock climbing and variety of other activities at a camp or other agency must be consistent with professional standards in the field. Ingraining standardized practices and responsible planning and supervision into the work habits of all employees will help to protect the employees and the agency from activity injury liability and costly litigation.