Can A School Board Be Held Liable For Tragic Events Like What Happened In Columbine High School, Newtown, CT or Sparks, Nevada ?

Posted By Michael R. Varble || 6-Nov-2013

Can A School Board Be Held Liable For Tragic Events Like What Happened In Columbine High School, Newtown, CT or Sparks, Nevada ? While I hope no one has to deal with this issue in their lifetime, it is an unfortunate reality of our daily lives now. As a result of the attacks being so common place, I think that a school board could be held liable in these times for injuries suffered by a student in an attack of this nature. A school has a duty to provide adequate supervision over its students and to act as a reasonable and prudent parent would under the same circumstances. One might argue, in opposition, that the criminal behavior by the attacker is unforeseeable and, as a result, the school board should not be held liable. However, given the frequency of these kinds of tragedies and that these issues have existed for approximately fifteen (15) years, and all teh measures school are enacting to address these kinds of attacks, I would argue that an incident of this nature is not unforeseeable and school boards have a responsibility to supervise their students and protect them from this type of attack.

In general, schools have a duty to supervise their students and to provide adequate supervision. The school has the responsibility or duty to act as a reasonable and prudent parent would under the circumstances. What does this mean ? Well, if the school is aware of the need for supervision, like when students are dismissed from school and are boarding buses, and then the school is aware of other students riding bicycles in the vicinity of the students boarding the buses, and they have not taken steps to avoid a child from being injured by a bicycle rider that would be considered reasonable and prudent under the circumstances, the school can be held liable for improper supervision.

These kinds of cases normally deal with situations where the school must have notice, either actual or constructive, and an opportunity to correct the condition. What is actual or constructive notice ? Notice is basically some evidence that the condition that caused an injury was complained about by someone, the school had knowledge of the condition or, in the case of constructive notice, the condition existed for such a long time that the school should have discovered the condition. The concept of "notice" of a condition is similar to notice for property liability purposes as well, like when someone slips and falls on a defective condition on a floor at a shopping mall. In a school supervision case though, the sort of thing that an attorney will look for is a prior complain of kids riding bicycles at dismissal time in the area of where the students are boarding buses. Another example might be where the school administration is notified of a dispute or argument between two students and then the same two students get into a fight and one is badly injured. In this second situation, the school knew about the dispute between two students and, if it did nothing to prevent a fight between the students, it failed to provide appropriate supervision and may be held liable fo rinjuries to one student. Obviously, the child that caused the injuries would be responsible for the injuries too, but the school could be found liable for injuries suffered by a child under these circumstances as well. Our readers should also keep in mind that there is case law which states the notice requirement is not necessary when the danger to students is obvious and clear.

A school's liability under this theory for failing to adequately supervise students arises out of the theory that the school is acting "in loco parents" or, for us who speak English, acting as a parent. As a result, the supervision responsibility does not extend to adults on school property. The responsibility of the school to supervise also ends when the student is no longer in the school's supervision, such as when a child who walks to school leaves the school's premises and is no longer in the custody of the school or when a child has gotten off a school bus at a safe location. In either case, a school district is no longer supervising the student and, as a result, is not responsible for the child's supervision.

With all of this information in mind, how do these legal theories impact on a case where there is a tragic event like Newton, or Sparks, Nevada ? I know from my own experience with my own children that schools are now implementing emergency drills for these types of situations, having police patrol schools, and placing security guards in schools as well. All of these acts, while desirable and useful, also show that the school boards are aware of the risk of these type of attacks and could be used as evidence in a case where a student is injured or killed by another armed student. If there is insufficient supervision by a security guard, an insufficient number of police patrolling the school, or there is some defect in the emergency lock-down process and a child is injured as a result, I would argue that the school could be held liable under these circumstances for a child's injuries or, death.

While I hope that anyone reading this blog post never has to contemplate these issues, I also realize that these incidents occur in this day and age. Child have access to firearms and school shootings seem to be reported in the media with regularity now. Schools are taking steps to address these circumstances as well from kindergarten through high school and while I hope it does not happen, I am pretty confident there will be another school shooting. Our readers should also take a look at my blog post from October 30th that discusses a parent's liability for a child's acts with a dangerous instrumentality. This theory would come into play in this type of case as well. As a result, if your child or someone you know has a child that is injured in one of these types of attacks, please feel free to call us at 1.800.900.6204 for a free consultation and a free case evaluation. We have over a century and a half of experience that we can put to work for you and we will fight for you.

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