5. Teacher Liability in the School Setting

Teacher Liability in the School Setting

          The Canadian Law Dictionary (2011) defines liability as any legal obligation for which a person is responsible.   It is generally agreed that teachers have two major duties in their role as educators; delivery of instruction and overall supervision of students.  Because all professional teachers are trained to address the academic and social needs of children, the standard of behavior expected of teachers is usually much higher than that of an average person in the care of children (Sewall, n. d.). 

             In most school settings both the role of delivering instruction and maintaining supervision happen in several key areas of the building.  Before specific areas of the educational environment can be discussed in terms of negligence and liability, it is important to clarify the meaning of supervision.  Most teachers and administrators use the term supervision when referring to times throughout the day when children are engaged in group activities such as recess play or outside play.  Teachers often think that it is only during these times that they are actually supervising children.  This is not the case.  Anytime of the day, anywhere in, or in close proximity to the school building or even on a fieldtrip, teachers if in the presence of students are carrying out the act of supervision. 

The Classroom

            Considering class size caps and increasing student enrollment, the typical classroom has an average of 20-25 students.  Though this may seem like a completely manageable number in most cases, only one teacher is assigned to a class of this size.  Because of the demands of curriculum outcomes and administrative deadlines, teacher’s in today’s classrooms often forget that duty of care should be their main focus.  Teachers often get so preoccupied by these secondary duties that true supervision can happen half-heartily at best.  Consider the actions of the following teacher: A teacher of 25 students has a classroom that is next door to the photocopy room.  Throughout the day the teacher will leave the classroom to make copies while the students are engaged in independent work.  The teacher does not regularly inform another adult she is leaving her class; she just leaves.  

            The classroom teacher described above could be held liable for injuries which could occur during her absence.  This would be especially true if the teacher knew or should have known about the students in her class who routinely engage in behaviors that could potentially be harmful to other students (Sewall, n. d.).  If the teacher has documented the negative behaviors of specific students in the past, she should take even more precaution when leaving the classroom.  There is a very simple solution to her dilemma.  If the teacher continuously needs to leave the classroom to get photocopies from the next room, she could first and foremost plan ahead to avoid needing copies during class but at the very least, she could warn another teacher that she is leaving the room for a minute.  The teacher knowing the behavior of certain students could be proactive and take that particular student with her when she warns her coworker of her brief absence. 

            The discussion of teacher negligence in the classroom setting would not be complete without considering classroom management.  In this new age of technology the fundamentals of classroom management have been changed.  Most classrooms now have computers or even Smartboards.  Teachers need to be aware that they now need to preview all materials before showing them to students (i.e. YouTube videos).  Any use of special equipment may need a lesson in using it safely.  For example, students may need to be restricted in internet usage or internet site they are allowed to safely view.  Being more aware of these areas of the classroom may prevent fully capable teacher from making a negligent mistake.

Special Needs Areas

            Most schools today have areas or units within the building that accommodate the varying needs of students with physical and cognitive disabilities.  These areas may be classrooms that have the necessary equipment such as lifts and change beds to adequately and safely deal with all types of needs.  Because of the special nature of these rooms and the students that use them, extra caution needs to be taken to ensure safety.  Teachers and administrators need to have a greater legal duty of care while supervising students with disabilities (Fossey & Russo, 2009).  Especially in cases involving special needs students, several factors would be taken into consideration to determine how reasonable a teacher acted in specific situations.  Factors that may be taken into consideration are the training and experience of the teacher, student’s age and degree of disability and the setting where the injury happened.  Also courts have held that student’s IEP (individual educational plan), nature of disability and needs are all relevant factors in judging the reasonableness of the supervision provided by the teacher (Bettenhausen, 2003).  Teacher should have a heightened standard of care for students with cognitive disabilities and problem behaviors.

Instructional Laboratories

            Most schools today are equipped with laboratories that provide students with a proper venue to carry out laboratory investigations that are essential for the effective teaching and learning of science.  A laboratory investigation is usually an experience in a laboratory that provides students with opportunities to interact directly with natural phenomena or with data collected by others using tools, materials, data collection techniques and models (National Science Teachers Association, 2007).  As teaching professionals, any teacher trained to teach in a laboratory setting has a heightened duty to ensure the safety of their students in the laboratory classroom.  The hands on nature of laboratory based activities injury is always a concern.

            Due to the uniqueness of laboratory management school boards and teacher’s associations have offered teacher’s specific guidelines that can help ensure a safe and effective learning environment for students and teachers of science alike.  Teachers are encouraged to be proactive in seeking out professional development opportunities in laboratory practice and procedure.  Teachers are asked to exercise reasonable judgment when conducting laboratory investigations.  Above all, teachers of laboratory courses should modify or alter laboratory activities in a safe manner.  If this is not possible, the teacher must report to administrators those issues impacting the provision of safe science instruction (NSTA, 2007).

Field Trips

            Field trips are an absolute vital component of teaching and learning in our schools today.  Field trips can give the students an experience that cannot be attained in the regular classroom.  Classes leave the school setting to embark on an adventure that involves bus rides and picnic lunches.  Field trips should not be as carefree for the teachers that are in charge over planning them.  Field trips pose a special concern to teachers and their liability in terms of safety of students (Green, 1998).  Teachers must take particular consideration when planning field trips.  First and foremost is the creation and signing of a permission slip.  All schools and school boards require that a field trip permission form be signed by a student’s legal guardian before the child is allowed to attend. 

            Most teachers believe that having a permission form signed by as parent relieves them of any liability if a child were to get injured and a parent were to sue.  The parents and the student can never sign away their right to sue (Greene, 1998).  These forms are used only to make sure that the parents are aware that their child is not in the school setting but is participating in an off school grounds field trip. The permission slip gives the teacher permission to take the child out of school and to the location of the field trip but if a permission slip is not received, that child should not be allowed to attend the outing due to liability reasons.

               Transporting students to and from a field trip is an important concern that should always be well thought out and taken seriously.   Students should be aware of the expectations of riding on the bus and walking since these are the two common forms of transportation.  Some children do not ride on a bus or walk regularly and they may not know some of the expectations, so a teacher should never assume anything.  Above all students need to be adequately supervised when they are on a fieldtrip or are travelling to or returning from the location.  This may require extra planning on behalf of the teacher but this planning will be well worth it is a safety issue were to arise.

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