Many school-aged children have medical conditions about which teachers, nurses, and others who are responsible for their health, safety, and well-being should know. If not addressed in the right way by administrators, teachers, or other officials, these conditions can result in a catastrophic incident, not to mention costly litigation. A student with a known heart defect, for instance, is vulnerable in a physical education class if the teacher is not informed of the child's condition and does not institute appropriate precautions or prepared to respond in a medical emergency. If cafeteria personnel in a daycare center know that a child has a peanut allergy but fail to supervise the child appropriately, the child can go into shock if she is allowed to sit at a table where another student is eating peanut butter. In situations like these, if a plan for the child's care was either not in place or developed but not communicated to the staff, the child might suffer irreparable harm - or even die.
Schools (and this is applicable as well to other agencies responsible for supervising children, such as daycare centers and summer camps) have a duty to know about a child's critical health condition. Having this knowledge requires them to develop adequate plans for the child's daily routines and allows all appropriate staff to plan for a quick and effective response to an emergency when necessary. Armed with as much information about the child as possible, the school can protect itself from liability by being aware of foreseeable harm to a child in specific situations - be they in class, on the playground, or on a class trip - and by instructing staff about a child's special supervisory needs.
Duty to know, plan, inform, and execute a plan
A school has a professional duty to collect as much health information about the children in its care as possible. Typically, before a child is admitted, parents complete a health form soliciting information about any chronic illnesses, allergies, or other conditions that the staff should know. The plan that is eventually developed for addressing the special health needs of a child is only as good as the information provided by the parent. In some situations, a parent might not provide full information that might be critical for protecting the child's safety and health. If sections of the form are left blank, it is the school's responsibility to follow up and ask for it to be completed in full. This is both necessary for the child to get the full benefit of his education, and critical so that staff may be informed of specific considerations that can mean the difference between life and death of a child.
Some students have a sustained or temporary medical condition that interferes with their ability to fully benefit from their educational program. For example, a student who recently had knee-replacement surgery will not immediately be able to climb the steps to get to her science class. This temporary disability requires a Section 504 plan, which differs from an Individualized Education Plan in that it does not involve special education services. Required as part of the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a Section 504 plan is commonly instituted to provide accommodations for students who have a broken leg or other acute conditions, or who are undergoing disabling treatments, such as chemotherapy, on a limited-time basis. For the student who underwent knee surgery, a 504 plan could indicate, for instance, that she is allowed to use an elevator that is off limits to others to be able to get to her science class. This plan is developed with the parent, the student, and the school nurse or others as appropriate, depending on the condition. School staff should be informed of the plan, and its implementation should be monitored on a regular basis.
If the school fails to develop such a plan or fails to assure that it is fully implemented, it could be liable for further injury to the child. In a similar case in which I was engaged as the child-safety expert witness, the plaintiff sued for damages based on the school's failure to implement the plan. The elevator was not working on several days, forcing the student to climb the steps to the second floor. One day, she fell and re-injured her knee. Once there is recognition of the need for an accommodation, the school is obligated to assure it is available and, as in this case, that equipment is fully functioning.
Caring for children with special healthcare needs
In the journal Pediatrics (102:137-140), McPherson et al define children with special healthcare needs as "those who have or are at increased risk for a chronic physical, developmental, behavioral, or emotional condition and who also require health and related services of a type or amount beyond that required by children generally." Special healthcare needs can include asthma, diabetes, cerebral palsy, bleeding disorders, metabolic problems, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, seizure disorder, sensory disorders, autism, severe allergy, immune deficiencies, or many other conditions. Some require daily treatments, while others require only observation for signs of impending illness and the ability of caregivers to respond in a timely manner.
As with acute conditions, a collaborative approach involving parents, the child's healthcare provider, teachers, and the school nurse is important for protecting the child's health, safety, and well-being and to protect the school from liability. Development of a healthcare plan that includes critical background information about the child and his special healthcare needs, how all staff will be informed about the need, and how staff will be trained to respond to an emergency will help to protect the child from harm and the school from potential liability.
When is a school or child care agency held liable?
In many cases for which I have been engaged as the school liability expert witness, I have found that the school or childcare facility had no knowledge of a special healthcare need, nor was there a care plan in place. In one case, for instance, the parent of a child who died after running two miles in physical education class failed to inform the school of the child's chronic heart condition. This condition restricted him from such activity. Without this information, the school was correct in treating the student like every other sixth grader, including him in the activities of the physical education class.
In some other cases, the school had a plan but it wasn't adequate, wasn't monitored, and the staff was unaware of the information in it - placing a child at risk of a life-threatening event or death. In one such case, a fourth- and fifth-grade physical education teacher instructed her students to go onto the field, run three laps amounting to approximately a mile, and return to the gym. One of the girls who ran the laps then entered the gym, walked halfway across the floor, and collapsed. It turned out that at the beginning of the school year, the parent completed a standard medical form noting that her daughter had a heart condition, was under the care of a pediatric cardiologist, and was restricted from sustained exertion - but the nurse simply filed this information away in her office. The nurse failed to alert any teachers - including the physical education teacher, in whose course the student would most likely encounter difficulty. The physical education teacher, in my opinion, was not at fault because she had no notice of the girl's health problem and restrictions. Expecting the children to run the course was reasonable and was included in the course outline, and she had no reason to exempt this child. However, it was also my opinion that the school breached the professional standard of care when the nurse, having notice of the student's chronic medical condition and restrictions, failed to inform the teachers, especially the physical education teacher. Unfortunately, the student did not recover, and the school withstood protracted wrongful-death litigation.
Implementing a plan to avoid life-threatening events
Any child who meets the criteria for having special healthcare needs and who presents an increased risk for a serious health event or death should have a routine- and emergent-care plan completed by their primary care provider. It is important that the assessment of the primary care provider include significant physical findings so that caregivers and teachers can develop a plan. An emergency-management plan also should list activities or services that are restricted or that differ from those typical of most children, and it should include specific instructions on how to provide medications, procedures, or implement modifications or emergent care. If these instructions are not clear and if the school requires further information, it is appropriate to ask the parent for permission to consult with the medical provider to ensure that the student receives proper care.
Every school employee, including teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, custodians, and others, should be informed about the special healthcare needs of every child in the facility. One person, preferably the nurse or another designated person, should serve as the funnel for this information and as the person responsible for the development of a healthcare plan, training of staff, and follow-up with parents and the child's healthcare provider. The staff nurse has a professional duty to understand the unique health issues of a child, transmit that information to all staff, monitor the child's health, and ensure that any equipment that may have to be used in an emergency situation involving this child is accessible, working, and can be used by others if necessary to save a child's life.
Often this fails to happen, as in the case of a high school student who collapsed in gym class. The teacher sent another student to the nurse's office to let her know what happened. The nurse arrived and reached for a defibrillator that was buried in a supply closet, still in the original box it was shipped in. She brought it to the gym only to discover that the battery was not charged and the device was useless. The student died because he was not treated in time. The school and nurse were sued for gross negligence. As the expert witness in this case, it was my opinion that the school administration breached the professional standard of care when it failed to assure that the defibrillator was operable and not locked in an inaccessible area. By failing to make the defibrillator accessible and in proper working order, the nurse acted in deliberate disregard for the health, safety, and well-being of the children in her care, including this child.
To reach an opinion as to whether a school met the professional standard of care, my review and analysis answers, among other questions, whether it acted appropriately and reasonably under the circumstances. These circumstances are always unique to each case and include whether the agency had a duty to develop and implement certain policies and procedures imposed by the state or licensing or accrediting authority. If, for instance, the school had a duty to develop a policy requiring health care screenings of all incoming students but the school failed to have such a policy in place, then it breached that duty and failed to adhere to the professional standard of care. Whether this failure proves to be a substantial cause of injury, health episode, or death is considered in light of the totality of the circumstances. Other standards that I examine include hiring, training, and informing competent staff; maintaining emergency equipment; and updating emergency contact information. If it can be demonstrated that there was a failure to act within the professional standard of care with regard to these and other specifics - and that failure is a proximate cause for serious injury, health episode, or death - the school or agency may be held liable.
On the other hand, my review might reveal that the school or other child care agency did everything to protect the health, safety and well-being of children: It hired competent staff, obtained critical health information about the child, maintained its emergency equipment, and otherwise fulfilled the professional standard of care - but a specific child's medical condition was not made known by the child's parent or physician, preventing the school from acting on that information. In cases such as these, when the child suffered a catastrophic event, the school may not be held liable.
Protecting the health, safety, and well-being of children entrusted to the care of staff in schools, daycare centers, camps, and other facilities falls within the professional standard of care for such agencies. How they implement this standard and whether they act appropriately and reasonably under specific circumstances determines liability. When an agency knows of the special healthcare needs of a child, develops a plan to address the need, informs staff of the issue, provides an emergency plan of action, maintains its emergency equipment, and takes any other steps necessary to protect the child, it will have met its professional standard of care. Without taking these steps, the school or agency may be held liable for a child's injury, catastrophic health episode or death. If the agency had no knowledge of, or reasonably could not have known, of a child's special healthcare needs, then the agency is unlikely to be held liable.