When a student personal injury in a public school triggers litigation, plaintiff and defendant attorneys must address the concept of governmental immunity. In general, governmental immunity shields public schools from tort litigation and liability. Governmental immunity is not universally applicable, however, depending on how the facts of a specific case accord with state or provincial laws. This article is about how governmental immunity in public school cases might be pierced and how schools can determine whether governmental immunity applies in school liability cases.
Millions of children participate in programs operated by daycare centers, nursery schools, and camps across the United States and Canada. The most important aspect of childcare is the safety and supervision of children. When a teacher, recreation leader, camp counselor, or other supervisor is engaged in activities involving young children, there is a duty to protect the child from physical harm, sexual abuse, and other forms of personal injury. A breach of duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of a child that leads to injury may result in daycare negligence lawsuits.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a "Dear Colleague" letter to college and university administrators about implementation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in regards to campus sexual assault cases. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities in schools that receive federal funding. The letter explains that schools are required to develop and distribute policies regarding sexual harassment, designate a Title IX coordinator to oversee the school's duties, train staff and students in sexual harassment and violence issues, and establish an investigation procedure and an adjudication process. The letter did not articulate specific procedural safeguards, rules for the examination of evidence, or guidelines for the conduct of adjudication or hearing processes for cases of campus sexual violence.
Harassment in schools can occur when a student is discriminated against on the basis of national origin, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or other identifiable class. A school district may be found liable for harassment if there is no strong, widely disseminated, and consistently enforced policy prohibiting it and no effective complaint procedure is in place. Schools can also be held responsible for the consequences stemming from a failure to take immediate, appropriate steps to respond to a complaint about harassment or bullying, terminate it, and discipline the offending party, be it an employee or another student. When a school has knowledge that a hostile environment exists but does not act on this knowledge, it can be viewed as giving tacit approval to this activity. In such cases, school districts have been found liable for enabling hostile school environment that prevents students from learning.
The relationship between private schools and their students is very different than the one that exists when a student is in a public school. In private schools, the relationship is contractual in nature. The contract is expressed or implied in written documents, such as promotional literature, student applications, and student and staff handbooks. By contrast, the relationship between public schools and students is governed by federal and state statues, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Title IX. In public schools, students are afforded constitutional, substantive, and procedural protections that are generally not applicable in a private school. In private schools, academic and conduct issues involving students raise contractual, as opposed to constitutional, issues.
Injuries are a part of intramural and extramural sports and recreation programs. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, high school athletes account for 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits, and 30,000 hospitalizations each year. There's a certain level of risk assumed by a child who participates in any physical activity, but the school or agency has a general duty to protect children from harm to avoid school sports injury lawsuits. Dereliction of that duty may result in any number of situations that a jury may consider negligent, such as failure to develop and implement appropriate policies and procedures for supervision, poor maintenance of equipment, or inadequate instruction of children about the dangers inherent in their activity.
Student injury or death often brings negative attention to a school. In fact, the first thing often reported publicly is an injured party's claim that an incident stemmed from the negligence or misconduct of a staff member responsible for a child's safety - a teacher, coach, or bus driver, for instance. But a student injury or death can result from any number of situations. These might range from school-related action or inaction, such as a breach of school security or failure to follow a student's medical orders, to a student's own actions and choices triggering a contributory negligence defense.
For schools, daycare centers, after-school programs, and camps, children with disabilities often present significant supervisory challenges. If these children's needs are not adequately addressed and a child is seriously injured or killed, negligent supervision may be viewed as a proximate cause. But what constitutes reasonable supervision of children with behavioral or physical disabilities? It depends on the unique needs of the student and a school's standards for protecting that student from harm.
This article reviews recent legislation and how that legislation effects compliance with student IEPs in regards to the equipment that can improve a student's ability to learn and interact with teachers, family, and friends. The article details the recommendation of devices and the school's responsibility in regards to their procurement, usage, and maintenance.
Recently, a Seattle student with cerebral palsy was awarded $300,000 in damages from her school after years of harassment by another student was allowed to take place. Her harasser regularly called her names, blocked her wheelchair's path with furniture and manipulated her chair's electronic controls so it rammed into walls. It was not until the harasser caused his target serious physical injury and property damage that school officials responded formatively to his hostility by suspending him for three days.