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When you send your child to school, it is with the understanding that the school will keep him or her safe throughout the school day. There is a “special relationship” between a school district and its students imposing an affirmative duty on the school district to take all reasonable steps to protect its students.
If your child’s safety has been compromised while they were in school, or if you’re worried about an incident occuring on school premises, it’s important to know what your school’s responsibility is to your child. We all have to do our best to keep our kid’s safe, but sometimes school’s can fall short.
It’s important to know these three main theories of liability against school districts when it fails to protect your child from other students.
The school district may be held liable for the acts of its employees such as teachers, hall monitors and school administrators if the supervision is negligent. These cases hinge on what the school personnel should have done; what they did do; and what they failed to do. Most school districts and schools have written materials (employee handbook or training manuals) that address these issues. These written materials should have sections devoted to physical altercations and sexual harassment or assault between students. These materials should contain student-teacher playground ratios, and the supervision requirements during recess, and lunch or other times when students will be moving through the halls. It is important to compare the school districts rules to the specific facts of each student assault case.
The school district may be held liable when the student assault was facilitated by the district’s hiring and continued employment of personnel who were neither qualified nor properly trained and as a result were ill-equipped to care for the safety of the students left in their care. The law requires that the school district and schools staff the common areas, such as playgrounds, with competent, trained staff. There is also a requirement that the school administrators supervise these staff members to ensure they are competently following the rules regarding the safety of students. The competency and training of staff involved in students assault cases should be investigated.
The configuration of the school may create a dangerous condition leading to the physical altercation or assault. This may be especially relevant in sexual assault cases on school grounds. In these cases, many times a child will be lured to a location such as behind a fence, a dumpster or hedges, some location where the activity can be hidden. A cause of action for dangerous condition of public property may be used to assert that the layout of the premises created a danger, giving rise to the assault. This may occur on playgrounds where there is a gap in a fence, a high hedge or misplaced dumpster where children assemble to “hide” from school personnel.
Review the written information (school handbook, etc.) from your child’s school which outlines how the school will handle situations such as sexual harrassment, assault and bullying. Being familiar with these rules can help your child feel safe and protected while at school, and help you hold the school accountable if something were to happen. Knowledge is power.
Get to know the teacher’s, administrators, and personnel who work with your child. Showing that you are concerned and willing to do your part to improve the safety of the school can go a long way. If you have a concern about a specific individual who works with your child, voice your concern to the principal or your child’s teacher. If that doesn’t work, petition administrators at the school board level.
If you have a concern about the safety of the school grounds, discuss your concerns with other parents, your child’s teacher’s, crossing guards, and your child. Attend community meetings, get involved in your child’s school, write letters, or hold a meeting where parents can meet and discuss the issue, and present ideas to the school board.
Educate your children about the dangers of bullies, strangers, and role play how they can avoid or extinguish dangerous situations. Teach your kids to never speak to strangers, to tell a teacher if they have been threatened, or if they hear word of a fight. Open communication with your kids about their teachers and the adults they interact with at their school can help keep you in the loop about changes in staff, or other changes you should be concerned about. Let your kids know that bullying is not okay, and that bullying should be dealt with by adults. Building a strong trusting relationship with your child and modeling how one should handle confrontation can go a long way in helping your child avoid situations at school.
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