The first responsibility of educators and those who supervise children in residential programs, day care centers, before- and after-school programs, and other settings is to make sure that these programs foster learning and care in a safe environment. Asking third graders to move a cart with a heavy TV on top, inadequate staff instruction in safe techniques to quell disruptive students, not carefully checking that the door to the pool closes and locks the way it is supposed to, excessive discipline, playground aides talking among themselves but failing to pay attention to the children, not providing a sufficient number of nighttime supervisors in a dormitory, and a school police officer not trained on how to interact with children with behavioral disorders - any of these circumstances can lead to student injury at school or death of a child and high litigation costs. The overriding professional standard of care is to protect children's health, safety, and well-being. Under this umbrella fall the development and implementation of policies, adequate staff training, and a level of supervision reasonably calculated to keep children safe.
Children in public and private schools and residential programs can be subjected to harm by the very adults charged with protecting them. Preventing this from occurring requires getting to know a student, his or her emotional status, and what circumstances might trigger certain behaviors. For example, a child who has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is recognized as someone who needs special accommodations. The IEP must be adequately developed and then implemented by all staff who come in contact with the student, including teachers and classroom assistants, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, school police, and custodians. When staff is neither informed about a student with special needs nor trained in techniques for de-escalating combative behavior, the stage is set for disaster. And if results are student injury at school, the school can be held liable.
Understanding the child's abilities and limitations, knowing how to interact positively with the child, establishing clear policies, consistently following the rules, and adequately training staff will go a long way toward avoiding interactions that end up resulting in student injury at school.
Let's look at some examples from my own work as an expert witness on standards of care in schools and residential facilities. In California, a child who had autism and mild mental retardation was forcibly restrained by as many as four people who held her at her classroom desk while forcing her to color a sheet of paper for one to two hours. She was also placed in a locked seclusion room for as many as five hours a day, during which she experienced severe duress and wet herself. She was told she could not change her clothes until she finished her time out and then finished the work she had refused. Even when time out was over, the child was kept in the seclusion room because it was designated as her classroom by the school. This case was litigated before a hearing officer and a court, with both holding that the school had violated her rights.
In this case, the school had a duty to develop an IEP that was reasonably calculated to help this student benefit from her education and to deal with any behavior or disability issues that could prevent her from learning. If she was being forced to color and was locked in seclusion for hours, she was not benefiting from her education. The school breached the professional standard of care that requires it to revise the IEP if it is not working. Any time a student must be overly disciplined, the IEP and any behavior plan are not working. In this example, the school failed to assess the child's placement in an adequate way; failed to conduct a behavioral assessment to determine why the student was behaving the way she did; failed to develop a plan to de-escalate her behavior; and failed to train staff how to intervene appropriately to protect her from harm. In my opinion, the combination of these failures led to the physical restraint of the student, her placement in a seclusion room, and psychological, emotional, and educational harm.
In another example, a school resource officer in New Jersey shot a child numerous times when the student allegedly acted aggressively toward him. No one had told the officer that the student, who was in a special education program at a public school, had a disability that manifested as aggressive tendencies, nor did the school train the officer in how to de-escalate aggressive behavior of this student or others with similar behaviors. The student was carrying a knife. The officer ordered him to put it down several times, and when he did not, the officer fired his semi-automatic pistol at the boy nine times. The police department that hired the officer and placed him in the school in collaboration with the board of education investigated. Ultimately, it determined that the officer had acted properly and according to police protocol under the circumstance.
This example brings into focus the role of police and school resource officers. Many schools either directly employ police officers or have agreements with police departments to allow officers in the school to work alongside staff. These arrangements are generally positive. Officers on campus are able to observe students in the context of the school and get to know them, as well as interact with them in the community after school, which can strengthen community/police relations.
In schools, the key to effective police work is training. Officers who interact with students must understand the school behavior code, information about specific children who need special supervision, and the developmental stages of children. Many seventh and eighth grade children, for instance, are developing social maturity - and they don't always think before acting. High school students, on the other hand, can be quite mature and may have other goals when interacting with one other. More importantly, students with disabilities may need to be communicated with in a different way than non-disabled students and might react unpredictably if they are frustrated or perceive that they are being bullied.
The police officer who emptied his weapon at this student had seen the student around the school but had no idea about his disability. He was never informed that under some circumstances, this student was capable of becoming aggressive - not because of his nature but because of an emotional immaturity that caused him to act before thinking. School staff understood how to de-escalate this student's behavior when he began to show signs of frustration or anxiety, and they had been successful at protecting him and other students in such circumstances. The professional standard of care requires that all school personnel who are likely to encounter the student's behavior be trained in how to deal with it by de-escalating the situation. The school resource officer was not trained to deal with the student in this way, however. His only training was from the police department: If a person coming at you with a weapon does not follow a command to drop the weapon, you may protect yourself with deadly force. Police are trained to focus on crime, and when a school does not adequately train a school resource officer to deal with students who have behavioral issues, a child can be harmed.
In another case for which I was the designated education administration and supervision expert witness, a judge ordered a school district to place a teenage student in a residential school that specialized in services for severely emotionally disturbed children. The school disagreed with the order but was obliged to comply. On the student's second day at this facility, he ignored a staff person's directive. Interaction between the student and the staff member escalated to the point where the staff person forcibly "placed" the student on the floor and sat on his back to restrain him. When the student struggled violently, the 200-pound male staff member pressed harder with his body to keep the student in place. Eventually, the student stopped struggling. He was dead when the EMTs arrived. The staff member was fired.
This case was complicated because the state, through the administrative law judge, ordered placement at the residential facility. The state was immune to a lawsuit, leaving the public school, the facility, the staff member, and his supervisors as defendants. The public school did not agree with the placement but complied under a legal order. The questions in this matter, then, were whether the residential facility met the professional standard of care and whether it acted appropriately and reasonably under the circumstance to protect the safety, health and well-being of the plaintiff.
My analysis of the facts led me to the opinion that the facility was negligent in its training. The school created a situation that otherwise would not have existed had the staff member been adequately trained and supervised. The staff member was minimally trained but no one assessed his ability to restrain a student in a safe manner. This was the first time the staff member had restrained a student in this manner. According to witnesses, the staff member did not attempt to de-escalate the situation - as is recommended by most accepted training in the use of physical restraint - before applying the deadly restraint. In my opinion, the staff member did not exercise reasonable care when it was quite apparent that disastrous injury could result from his action. His failure to de-escalate the confrontation and, in my opinion, failure to exercise care that even a careless person would use amounted to reckless disregard of the consequences of sitting on a student's back. It is likely that the trier of fact in such a lawsuit would determine this behavior gross negligence. My expert opinion was that the school's failure to provide adequate training was a proximate cause of this child's wrongful death.
Schools and other programs responsible for children can misuse punishment, and the effects of that misuse can cause years of damage to a child. Any new teacher, camp counselor, or child care worker knows that teaching children appropriate behavior is important for their own safety. What I learned as a teacher and school administrator is that establishing a mutual sense of respect is the first step on that path. Without question, everyone needs to know how to get along with others and to interact in a socially appropriate manner. However, one must be extremely careful when using punishment to change behavior - especially the behavior of an often temperamental or non-communicative child with a disability. Ill-timed, vengeful, and capricious punishment without incentives only creates a negative template for children to follow. Punishment that places kids in isolation only provokes counter aggression. When teachers deal with a student's frustration or misbehavior by putting him in isolation, it is likely that the student would respond by expressing aggression through screaming, disrobing, soiling himself and, in some cases, hurting himself. Because of their disability, some students are unable to express themselves verbally, so they express their frustration the only way they were taught - through aggression.
When a child is restrained or forcefully taken to a time-out room, slammed into a chair, and yelled at to "sit still," or encounters a teacher who slaps, pinches, or spanks her, her constitutional right to bodily security has been breached. The right to security of one's person and body is generally protected when there is no justification for physical contact. This does not prohibit physical contact that is justified by a need to protect others or school property or to maintain order, and when the manner and degree of authorized physical force or restraint is reasonable. While some incidents of student abuse give rise to multiple constitutional, statutory, and common law claims of injury to bodily security, those sources create different standards of student rights and school district liability. Title IX indirectly supports the view that sexual abuse of students is a serious invasion of a constitutional civil right.
Student suicides and sexual abuse of students have brought to light another theory of constitutional right, namely that public schools, as state-created, state-operated institutions with full, though temporary, control and custody of their students, have a "special relationship" with an affirmative constitutional duty to protect students from harm which includes student injury at school. It is easier to prove a violation of this duty than to prove that a school was grossly negligent or deliberately indifferent to student harm. Students injured at school by school employees while in the custody of the school may argue that their public school relationship is more like the situation of a prison, where inmates are substantially required to be there and controlled by the state. However, in public schools, the duty-to-protect argument is open to further clarification and case development and is often the subject of many lawsuits against schools and other programs in charge of caring for children. In two federal cases (Walton v. Alexander  and Pagano v Massapequa Public Schools ), for instance, courts have issued contradictory opinions on the circumstances around which a "special relationship" exists.
Duty to protect is often the subject of cases involving wrongful death and serious student injury at school. The concept of constitutional breach of protecting children and their bodily integrity may be argued in such cases. To mount a strong defense against such a claim, the school or agency must show it had and implemented, at the time of the alleged injury, clear and concise policies, a comprehensive training program, and diligent supervision that assured that through its administration and/or other employees, the school or agency is protecting the health, safety, and well-being of children.
Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.
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