New Book Addresses Liability of Schools Due to Negligence
By Lori Wright, Media Relations
April 11, 2007
Unsupervised fifth-graders are caught having sex in a school classroom.
A student is injured when chemicals splash in his eyes after a science
teacher forgets to remind her students to wear safety goggles. Two students
drown during a teacher-supervised field trip to the seashore.
School districts today face increasing threats of lawsuits due to the
negligence of school officials, but there are a number of actions principals
can take to reduce and avoid legal liability, according to a new book by
Todd DeMitchell, professor of education at UNH.
“Negligence: What Principals Need to Know about Avoiding Liability” provides
a primer on the tort of negligence and what steps can be taken to reduce
injuries and avoid liability. DeMitchell spent 18 years in the public school
system holding positions from substitute teacher to superintendent, including
principal of a K-8 school. He researches school law, collective bargaining
and educational policy.
“Safety and security should be a core value of a school. It is a
beginning point for all other educational activities,” DeMitchell
says. “Often, however, there is not enough time available to research
and learn all of the various responsibilities that shape the work of educating
students. One such area that is often given short shrift is the legal responsibilities
DeMitchell’s research shows that only 55 percent of principals thought
their knowledge of tort liability was sufficient enough to meet their administrative
responsibilities. This is startling when considering the number of lawsuits
filed each year as a result of negligence. One California study found that
during a three-year period, students filed more than 1,000 lawsuits, with
nearly 80 percent of them based on allegations of negligence. The average
size of damage awards in negligence cases was more than $1 million.
“Even though principals typically take a school law class that covers
negligence, the knowledge gained does not always stay with the principal
and become part of the principal’s habits of mind and habits of action,” he
According to DeMitchell, many student injuries can be avoided by taking
reasonable precautions. His book addresses a number of instances in which
injuries can be prevented, including incidents of hazing, negligent hiring,
educational malpractice, sexual abuse of students, harm caused by school
employees and adherence to Do Not Resuscitate orders.
Recently a number of high-profile cases involving teachers having sex
with students have been reported in the media. According to DeMitchell,
courts often award damages in such cases when there is a failure on the
part of the school administration to supervise and train school officials,
investigate incidents or hire carefully.
“It seems axiomatic that students should be able to attend school
and not have to run a gauntlet of abuse. Unfortunately, the school as a
safe harbor is not always safe for students. All too often students suffer
harassment, abuse and sexual assault while at school or while participating
in school-related activities,” he says.
For special education teachers, Do Not Resuscitate orders for medically
fragile children are a delicate and heart-rending issue. Essentially, how
do school personnel let a student die at school?
DeMitchell suggests schools develop individualized care plans for each
medically fragile student. The plan should include what comfort measures
should be given to the child and how the family will be notified if the
student dies at school.
“Teachers and principals owe a duty of reasonable care to their
students. Teachers and principals can be sued for the breach of that duty
that caused the injury. There is no magic formula for incantation that
can be invoked that will protect an educator from such lawsuits. The best
protection from lawsuits lies within the control of educators – how
they consistently discharge their professional duties,” he says.