Being “at school” can encompass a wide array of situations and places in addition to being in a classroom: transport to and from school, walking and taking a bus, lunch, after-school programs, including indoor and outdoor sports, summer school programs, group field trips, and of course, recess.
Risk of Injury
Even though children may not be in the classroom during recess, there is still an expectation that a teacher or other adult will supervise the children while they are at play. Statistics found on the website Safe Kids USA show a greater need for adult supervision of children on playgrounds at school.
- Lack of supervision is associated with approximately 40% of playground injuries.
- Children ages 5-9 account for more than half of all playground-related injuries.
- Children play without adult supervision more often on school playgrounds.
- Nearly 40% of playground injuries occur during the months of May, June, and September.
A recent New York case outlines some important issues related to a school becoming liable for negligence. In general, schools have a duty to adequately supervise students in their charge and can be liable for certain foreseeable injuries related to a lack of supervision. Schools cannot ensure the safety of their students, but should take steps to prevent harm to them, if they see that rough playing could cause one child to injure another.
This case involved injury to a student during recess at summer school. Several third-grade boys separated from other members of their class and threw pieces of asphalt at each other. School regulations prohibited this behavior and the teacher(s) assigned to supervise them did not stop them. The incident escalated, resulting in the plaintiff's leg being broken and requiring several surgeries. The Appeals Court found that there was enough evidence for the case to move forward and that the lower court should not have dismissed it.
In California, a Metropolitan News-Enterprise story reports on another lawsuit against a school that was recently revived on appeal. The suit alleged negligent supervision based on an alleged sexual assault against a seven-year-old girl by her peers. The children were attending a free after-school playground program when a “kissing club” went awry. According to the article, Justice Klein wrote: “[s]chools have a special relationship to supervise children on their premises, including participants in voluntary programs, giving rise to a duty to provide children reasonable protection.”
Immunity & Discretion
However, not all school injuries result in school liability. The Union Recorder reports that in Georgia, a teacher was not liable for injuries sustained by a student in her class. An experiment launched a bottle into the air like a rocket. A metal pin hit a student in the eye and blinded him. The student was not wearing protective goggles. The Court found that the teacher was protected by official immunity and that she made a “discretionary judgment call.”
Another area of concern is bullying. Across the country, the issue is being addressed more frequently. In Maryland, the Governor declared Maryland Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week. In Massachusetts, the Governor signed anti-bullying legislation. According to the press release, “[t]he mandated reporting requirements, anti-bullying curricula at all grade levels, and cyber-bullying components make this the most comprehensive and one of the strictest bills in the nation.”
Nobody wants to see any child harmed at school or anywhere, but accidents happen and often, the courts hold schools liable for injuries perceived as resulting from negligence. Watching children closely and intervening when necessary can do a lot to decrease injuries and prevent schools from any resulting liability.
Armellino v Thomase, 2010 NY Slip Op 03256 [72 AD3d 849], April 20, 2010.
Duty Owed to Students in After-School Programs, by Steven M. Ellis, March 29, 2010.
Ga. top court finds teacher not liable for injury, by Dorie Turner, July 5, 2010.
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