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Student Safety and School Liability Involving School Police and Security Guards

By: Dr. Edward Dragan
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Parents send their children to school expecting that their kids will be safe. The parents trust that the school's staff will act in their place and look out for their children's welfare in the same way they would. The presence of security guards, school police, or resource officers at the school may even strengthen their trust, but this can be a false sense of safety. Just because guards and school police officers wear a uniform does not always mean additional protection for students. Reviewing and assessing the potential for harm to students and others on school grounds and at school-sponsored events requires careful consideration and proactive initiative to keep students safe, even when the presence of a security guard or school police officer may provide a veneer of safety. Inadequately screening, training, and supervising security guards and school police officers; failing to provide guards and officers with clear instructions for handling special circumstances known to the school; and inappropriately delegating the responsibility for keeping children safe can all be linked to student injury or death.

If the school hires its own security or police staff, it must conduct the required background checks to determine whether the person is someone the school would want to be around children. The school also has a responsibility for adequately training the person to understand students of all types, communicate effectively with students, and de-escalate potentially dangerous situations. If the school agrees to use the services of a school resource officer or a school police officer from a local police department, it should conduct a background check and review the department's training of the officer to determine whether it is at least comparable to what the school would provide.

Whether the school police or security officer is hired directly by the school or placed by an outside entity, the school is always responsible for supervising that person and for overseeing their relationship with students. Teachers, principals, counselors, and other school staff are most familiar with the school's rules, students, and culture, and within these contexts, they are responsible for exercising diligence to protect students' safety. And while the same responsibility extends to the school police officer, it is never prudent for a school to pass off this responsibility to anyone who is not carefully screened, appropriately trained, or supervised. Any of these mistakes can place students at risk of harm and the school at risk of costly litigation.

Failure to Train, Screen, and Supervise School Police and Security Guards

Unfortunately, there are many examples to demonstrate that when guards and school police officers are not properly screened, trained, and supervised, their presence may be ineffective - and possibly even harmful.

In one instance, a school police department assigned an officer to a junior high school as a school resource officer. The school did not inquire about the officer's background, assuming that because he was assigned by the police department, the officer was trustworthy. This, coupled with the school's failure to supervise him adequately, emboldened him to commit sexual assault on a student. After the school police officer was arrested, it was brought to light that he had been arrested previously for inappropriate sexual behavior with a minor while on duty before being hired as a police officer. The police department was aware of this, as the information was available both publicly and as part of a regular background check, which the school had failed to perform. If the school had properly screened the officer and conducted the proper background checks, it likely would not have allowed him near students and the abuse would have never occurred.

Following last February's tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, it was revealed that the officer stayed away from the area of the shooting and never attempted to go inside the building to confront the gunman and protect the students. This raised questions about whether the officer was appropriately trained. Lawsuits have been filed against the Broward County Sheriff's Office, which assigned the school police officer to the school, and also against the Broward County Public Schools superintendent, who is alleged to have placed students and teachers in harm's way. A finding of inadequate or no training on the part of the school, or inadequate oversight of the training provided by the sheriff's office, may result in liability for the district.

Each school has its own unique safety concerns, and in these situations, the level of precaution required is commensurate with the degree of inherent danger. When a car struck a student who crossed a street to attend a school-sponsored event on school grounds, the student's attorney claimed the student was injured because the school was negligent in providing the level of safety required for the event. The person who supervised the school security guard failed to make it clear to the guard that during the Saturday program, the guard was to monitor the traffic. There was a location where students, parents, and others crossed the street from the school to go to the field where the events were taking place. Although it was generally understood that this was a location where cars might not always stop, the supervisor never directed the security guard to this location. Despite the known inherent danger at that location, the school failed to provide security commensurate with that danger. Instead, the security guard was patrolling inside of the school building.

Failure to Address Behavior Challenges

On the subject of training security guards and resource officers about a school's specific safety concerns, students with known behavior issues merit special attention.

Guards and school police officers who are in schools are in the presence of students all day and, at times, during evening and sports events. They develop relationships with students and often need to correct a student's behavior. To do this effectively, security and school police personnel may require specialized training to communicate and engage with some students, particularly those who are developmentally challenged. Communicating effectively with such a student differs from communicating with a student who is not developmentally challenged. If a student with a behavior disorder becomes involved in a confrontation with an officer who does not know how to interact with the student, a potentially volatile situation might only get worse.

Two examples illustrate this point. In one, a junior high school student with known behavior challenges was confronted by a school security guard because he was in the hallway without a pass. The guard confronted the student in a way that was not appropriate and escalated the situation. An argument ensued, the student ran down the hallway, and the security guard chased after him. At the end of the hallway, the student ran into a closed glass door, sustaining serious injuries. The security guard had not been informed of the student's behavior issues and was not trained in how to communicate effectively with the student or others like him. In another case, a student with a behavior disorder entered the office of the school police officer, and when he was ordered to leave, he refused. The officer was not informed of the student's disability and tendency to be stubborn. The officer, who said he felt threatened by the student, shot him several times. In both of these examples, the school was found liable for its failure to properly train its officers.

In my experience as an expert witness in education administration and school safety, most training of school security guards and resource officers addresses little about students with disabilities and others whom the school recognizes as being challenging. Teachers, administrators, and other professional school staff receive such training in their certification programs and often through inservices throughout their career. Everyone who interacts with students on a regular basis should be required to participate in educational programs and training that address student behavior, why some students behave in certain ways, and when conflicts arise, how to intervene effectively to keep students safe.

Failure to Uphold the School's Duty to Supervise Students and Keep Them Safe

Schools generally do not take security guards or school police or resource officers with them to off-campus events. In these situations, the responsibility for supervising students rests with the teachers and other chaperones. However, there have been circumstances in which staff and chaperones relinquished that responsibility to others, placing students in danger of harm.

In one example, a school took students to participate in a national science competition. The students stayed overnight in a hotel operated by a major chain. The school contacted the hotel ahead of time, and the hotel hired a private security guard to be on the grounds and in the building while the students were there. The chaperones on this trip were aware of this arrangement and relied on the security guard to supervise the students, to make sure they were in their rooms at curfew, and to ensure that they did not disturb other guests. Relying on the security guard to supervise the students, the chaperones went to sleep and left him in charge. None of the teachers checked on the students during the night and were unaware until morning that the security guard had entered the room of one of the students and raped him. The teachers inappropriately delegated supervision of their students to the security officer - essentially abandoning the students when they had a responsibility to supervise them and keep them safe.

In another case involving an overnight class trip, teachers trusted that the hotel security guard would keep students out of the swimming pool. Before the teachers went to bed, no one walked the area to ensure that the students were complying with the no-swimming rule, that they met curfew, and that they were in their rooms. Some of the students were not able to swim, but the school never asked them about that before the trip - even though it knew there was an indoor pool that was not protected by a lifeguard. When the teachers emerged from their rooms in the morning, they discovered that two students went into the pool in the early morning, and one who was not able to swim had drowned. Reliance on the hotel security guard and the teachers' failure to supervise contributed to the drowning.

In the above examples, having security guards and school police or resource officers onsite may not have been helpful at all without proper care and supervision by the school. When engaged on cases involving issues of student safety and security, our team of experts carefully reviews the available information and testimony and conducts an analysis on the appropriateness of the school's policies, procedures, hiring, supervision, and student safeguards in order to determine whether the school's actions were reasonable and met the professional standard of care and practices within the field of education administration and supervision.

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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