For about nine months out the year, your child spends most of her time away from home. She's in school, five days a week from early morning to mid-afternoon. During that time, who's responsible for your child?
It's a complicated matter, but in general the school is responsible for your child's safety. There are some exceptions, and parents have some responsibilities, too.
Schools generally have to provide a safe environment for their students. This means the school has to take reasonable steps to make sure your child isn't harmed by other students, teachers or staff, persons entering the school without permission, or structural problems with the school building and grounds.
This doesn't mean, however, your child's school is responsible for all of her injuries. For example, if your child was hurt when she fell down some steps, the school likely isn't responsible if she fell because she was running down the steps.
In most cases, it comes down to a question of negligence: Did the school do something wrong, or fail to do something all together, that caused your child to be injured or made the school unsafe? For instance, the school may be at fault for an injury when:
- A teacher or school officials knew about bullying incidents at the school and did nothing to stop or prevent them
- There were inadequate plans to evacuate students in the case of an emergency or to seek shelter during bad weather, or the fire alarms didn't work properly during a fire
- A student was hit by a car near the playground because there was a lack of supervision on the playground or vehicle traffic near the playground wasn't restricted properly
- Necessary medication wasn't given to the student properly
- An injury was caused by damaged stairs or walls or peeling paint and the school was aware of the problem but didn't make necessary repairs
- School personnel ignored security policies and didn't notice a stranger entering the school without permission
- Cafeteria personnel don't cook lunch items properly or served food that wasn't fit eating
- A child was injured when his school bus was in an accident or was hit by school bus after being dropped off at school
As you can see, in these examples - any number of others that may come up - a school's responsibility for your child goes only so far. The school doesn't, and can't, guarantee your child's safety in all things. It can only take steps to prevent or stop those things it knows about, or should know about, that may put your child's safety at risk.
Mainly because of this, most schools have zero tolerance policies. They're designed to keep discipline and order in the school by barring students from bringing weapons to school or threatening other students or staff with violence.
Even though you're not at school with your child, you have some responsibilities to keep him safe while he's there. And, like the school, you can find yourself in legal trouble for his misbehavior. For example:
- If your child needs to take medication during school hours, such as insulin, it's your responsibility to make sure the school has a supply of the medication and instructions on when it's to be given
- It's your job to make sure your child treats other students and school staff with respect, and if there's a problem, it's up to you to work with the school and your child to correct the problem before the situation becomes violent
- If your school has a zero tolerance policy, you need to make sure you and your child understand what the policy covers and follow the rules
- Your child should understand how to keep himself and others safe at school. No running in the halls or rough-housing, and the need to pay attention to the safety rules on the playground and parking lots are good examples
- If your child injures another student or someone on the school's staff, you could be sued. You could also face criminal charges if your child takes a weapon to school
To a big extent, your responsibility as a parent for your child's safety at school begins long before you drop him off at the bus stop or at the school doors, and it doesn't necessarily end once he's at school, either.
Parents and schools share a common goal: To make the school a safe place for students to learn. Most schools take extraordinary measures to make their schools safe, as do most parents. If everyone knows their responsibilities and does everything they can to meet those responsibilities, our schools will be a much a safer and effective place to learn.
Questions for Your Attorney
- My child's bus was in an accident on the way to school and my child injured her arm. Can I sue the school or the school bus driver for her medical bills?
- My child says he's being bullied on the bus, but the school says there's nothing it can do about since the other student goes to a different school. What can I do?
- Are teachers at my child's school allowed to use a paddle or spanking to discipline and punish students?