When we send our children off to school each day, we are entrusting our most precious loved ones into the hands of school employees, including bus drivers, teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, and even janitorial workers. We trust that the public or private school our child attends has thoroughly vetted and trained its staff to nurture our children, teach them with kindness, and protect them from harm. School district liability is the legal responsibility of schools to live up to that trust.
In terms of the law, school officials act in loco parentis, or in place of the parents, when children are in school. They are legally responsible, or liable, for doing whatever is reasonably possible to keep our children safe.
Naturally, accidents and unforeseeable events happen. But when a child is injured at school because of negligence or intention, it is natural for a parent to want to hold the school accountable.
School Injury Statistics
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year, more than nine million children are brought to emergency departments for nonfatal injuries.
- For children 14 and younger, 10 to 25 percent of accidental injuries occur in and around schools.
- Injuries due to falls are the leading cause of child injury: 2.8 million kids are treated in emergency rooms every year for fall injuries.
- U.S. emergency departments treat more than 200,000 children per year for playground injuries.
- Every year, an average of 20,000 kids suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
- 61% of playground injuries treated at emergency departments occurred at places of recreation or schools.
Of course, the above mentioned injuries are not the only ways children may be harmed at school. Children can be hurt by bullies, whether they are abused by other students, or adults working at the school. And the injuries are not always physical. Children can be victim to both physical and emotional harm in the school setting.
School District Liability for Student Injuries
To determine who is ultimately responsible for your child’s school injury, the first question is whether the event that caused the injury is due to intention or negligence.
School District Liability for Intentional Injuries
Intentional torts describe wrongful actions that are done on purpose and result in injury to another person. This can include bullying, where another child inflicts physical and/or emotional harm to a student. It can also include assault and battery by another student – for instance, a fight that takes place on school grounds,
If your child has been injured by another child at school, the parents of the other child may be liable for the injury, depending on the circumstances.
Bullying, assault and battery, can also be inflicted by an adult employee of a school, such as when a teacher physically abuses and/or emotionally abuses a student. Sexual abuse and sexual harassment of a student are also considered intentional torts.
In this case, you can hold the abuser liable. And, in cases of intentional injuries inflicted at school, the school and/or school district may also be liable for their negligence in allowing the injury to happen. For example, the school may be held liable for negligence if they knew your child was suffering physical abuse by a school employee, or they reasonably should have known, and failed to stop it.
School district liability may also apply if the district failed to conduct a background check on a school employee who harmed your child, or did not provide adequate training or supervision. Other examples are failing to implement bullying prevention procedures, or failing to address school bullying that is already happening.
School District Liability for Negligence
Just as in intentional injuries, cases involving negligence often turn on whether or not the injury was foreseeable. If it is clear that the school, or an employee of the school, knew of a specific danger – or reasonably should have known – but failed to take proper precautionary measures, then they are liable for negligence.
If the playground equipment at your child’s school is obviously defective or dangerously damaged, and your child is injured, the school would be liable for your child’s injuries.
There are many areas of school district liability, because schools provide for children’s basic needs while the children are in their care: shelter, food, transportation, and a safe environment. Injuries that arise from failure to meet these needs are generally known as “premises liability,” or a failure to maintain a safe environment.
School premises liability includes:
- School bus accidents caused by a negligent bus driver, improper driver training by the school district, poor bus maintenance, or negligence of the other driver involved.
- Playground injuries caused by lack of supervision by school employees or dangerous equipment.
- Food poisoning due to improper food handling by school employees, or tainted food provided by a school’s vendor.
- Sports injuries due to inadequate supervision or training of school employees, or defective sports equipment.
- Exposure to toxic substances due to the school district’s failure to properly maintain the buildings to ensure a safe environment.
- Injuries from natural or man-made disasters (such as school shootings) caused by a failure to adequately plan for emergencies, or properly carry out the emergency plans.
Infliction of Emotional Distress
If your child suffered emotional or psychological trauma at school, whether or not it was accompanied by a physical injury, you may be able to seek damages from those responsible. Children’s mental health is every bit as important as their physical health.
- If your child’s emotional distress happened at the hands of a teacher or other school employee, taking action against that person may prevent other students from being similarly abused.
- Infliction of emotional distress can also be either intentional or negligent.
Intentional infliction of emotional distress is when a person intentionally causes severe emotional distress or mental trauma to another through extreme or outrageous behavior – or does so with reckless indifference to the person’s safety. Bullying, taunting, humiliating, or sexually harassing a child may be considered intentional infliction of emotional distress.
- While physical injury is easier to prove than psychological injury, there are ways to establish the existence of emotional distress. These include the testimony of witnesses or other victims, as well as medical records and/or testimony from doctors, counselors, and caregivers about changes in the child’s weight, appetite, sleeping habits, and behavior.
- Negligent infliction of emotional distress occurs when someone’s negligence causes mental distress. This can be very difficult to prove, but it is possible. If there is clear evidence that the person showed a blatant and reckless disregard for the child’s wellbeing, you may be able collect damages for psychological injuries.
Exceptions to School District Liability
There are some exceptions to a school’s liability for a student’s injuries. One exception is when the school is not acting in loco parentis, and are not responsible for your child’s well being. For example, if children are playing on the school grounds on the weekend, or when the school is closed. This is especially true if the school made reasonable efforts to keep people from gaining access to the property, for instance, with a locked gate and fences.
- Organized sports provide another exception to school district liability. There is some assumption of risk whenever a student volunteers to engage in a sporting activity. If a student is injured in the normal course of playing that sport, parents typically cannot sue the school for negligence.
- For example, if a student breaks an ankle during a chaotic soccer skirmish, the school is probably not liable. However, if the coaching staff encouraged the students to play roughly or neglected to provide proper safety equipment, a case could be made.
Public School vs. Private School
If your child goes to public school, it is considered a governmental entity. As such, there are very strict procedures for bringing an injury claim against the government, and they vary by state.
- If your child goes to a private school, you can file a personal injury case against them as you would any other business: in civil court. Be advised that the school will no doubt have an attorney whose sole purpose is to make your case go away. You need an equally experienced attorney to make sure they aren’t successful.
The attorneys at TorkLaw know the anguish involved with caring for an injured child. You don’t have to handle it alone. When your child’s school is responsible, the trauma can be multiplied by the complex issues involved in school district liability.
- When a child is injured, a parent’s only priority should be helping them recover. Contact TorkLaw – we will make sure you receive the compensation your child needs to get better.