Are schools legally responsible for student safety?

Although a school’s first priority is to educate students, it’s also of utmost importance to maintain a safe and supportive learning environment. In some cases, it’s even a legal responsibility. However, the subject of school safety and whether or not the institution itself is held liable if something goes wrong is somewhat unclear.

But beyond any legislative accountability to keep students safe from harm is a larger moral responsibility and something every school should strive to achieve.

In this guide, we’ll help your school district demystify the topic of liability and understand how to better protect students from safety risks — both online and off.

The importance of school safety

While there are no explicit laws in the United States of America that grant citizens a legal right to feel safe, safety and security are an incredibly important part of fostering a productive learning environment. And even in the absence of such legislation, schools may be held legally responsible for the safety of their students in certain circumstances.

When students come to school, they have every right — whether outlined by law or not — to feel protected and free from harm. This applies to both internal and external risks, online and offline, such as:

  • Mental health
  • Physical or self-harm
  • Bullying
  • Gun violence
  • And more

More specifically, the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE) defines school safety as any school or school-related activity where students are free from violence, bullying and harassment, and the influence of substance use.

Additionally, the NCSSLE mentions that emotional and physical safety in school are closely related to academic performance. In short, the safer that students feel, the better they perform in their classes. Further still, teachers also benefit greatly from healthy learning environments — especially those that emphasize emotional safety alongside physical safety. When there’s an air of emotional safety, it allows teachers to discuss sensitive topics more comfortably and confidently without having to worry about a reaction.

FREE DOWNLOAD! Back To School Safely Guide [based on real stories] LEARN & SECURE >>

Are schools liable for student safety?

In truth, the answer as to whether or not schools are liable for student safety is unclear. In many cases, a question like this is up for debate — and, depending on who you ask, you may get different answers. This is likely due to the fact that there’s no tried and tested science behind resolutely determining liability, and each situation is made up of several factors that can sway the decision one way or another.

In general, however, it’s widely accepted that two factors matter the most:

  • Foreseeability
  • Negligence

There are some exceptions under which school districts wouldn’t be held liable if something were to happen on school grounds. But, under normal circumstances, the school would be responsible if a personal injury or emotional harm occurs on the property and during school hours.

As an example, if one student injures themselves outside regular hours or off of the property, there’s no expectation of school supervision. Therefore, the school and its staff can’t be considered negligent, nor could they have foreseen the injury occurring.

When schools may be responsible

With the above in mind, it’s of equal importance to understand when a school is responsible and will be held liable for the safety of its students. In relation to foreseeability, if a school has prior knowledge or awareness of a potential risk, there is a duty bestowed upon staff to prevent harm through reasonable measures. Certain risks include, but are not limited to:

  • Physical injury
  • School shootings
  • Sexual assault
  • Bullying
  • Suicide

Consider the following as an example of negligence where a school may be held liable: A student slips and falls on ice while on school grounds and sustains a serious injury. In this case, the school is negligent for not salting the ice.

Similarly, an example of foreseeability would be if a staff member is aware that a student is being bullied which eventually leads to a physical altercation where a student is injured. This would be a case of failing to provide adequate protection while having foresight into the problem.

Foreseeability on school computers and in the cloud

Relating to the aforementioned examples, foreseeability is not limited to physical risks that happen off of the internet — or even on school grounds. This principle applies to any and all online activities, including those in the cloud, that could make their way onto school-owned devices.

Failure to protect students from predictable online dangers, like inappropriate content or cyberbullying, could result in a lawsuit against the school board where they are held liable for negligence or failure to intervene.

Famously, the 2005 case of Kowalski v. Berkeley comes to mind. In summary, this case involved a group of 12th-grade students, one of which (Kowalski) created a MySpace group with the intention of bullying one person in particular. Other students who joined the group would share photos and remarks that outwardly made fun of their victim.

And while the plaintiff tried to sue the Berkeley County School District for infringing on her second amendment right to freedom of speech for disciplining her actions, she was unsuccessful in her case. Even though the group was created outside of school hours and not on school grounds, it was concluded that the creation of the group and the activity that took place within it was enough to foresee a substantial disruption.

To quote the record:

“Other courts have similarly concluded that school administrators’ authority to regulate student speech extends, in the appropriate circumstances, to speech that does not originate at the school itself, so long as the speech eventually makes its way to the school in a meaningful way.” Furthermore, “It was foreseeable in this case that Kowalski’s conduct would reach the school via computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices.”

This is a prime example that highlights the importance of having cloud monitoring software, which back in 2005, didn’t have the capabilities that it does now. Today, schools can equip themselves better than ever to foresee and prevent bullying and other at-risk behaviors that happen online.

FREE DOWNLOAD! Back To School Safely Guide [based on real stories] LEARN & SECURE >>

How to reduce school liabilities and protect student safety

Technology, and more specifically cloud monitoring tools, play an important role in protecting students from emotional and physical harm, as well as schools from any legal liability.

For example, cloud monitoring tools can help schools enforce their bullying prevention policies and bolster cybersecurity efforts so they can intervene before it’s too late. Not only do these tools allow school staff to recognize and mitigate risky online behaviors, but they can also be a catalyst for proving the foreseeability of an event and that it was acted upon in a proactive and appropriate way to try and prevent it from happening.

ManagedMethods Cloud Monitor uses AI to help schools better detect student safety signals, including self-harm and cyberbullying, and threatening and explicit content. Further, it serves detailed alerts and incident information to school administrators, providing history on document owners, contributors, text history, sharing history, and more.

Reducing risk with ManagedMethods

In our increasingly digital world, it’s paramount that students receive the same level of protection against harmful online content and behaviors as they do within the school itself.

Not only can a school board be held liable in certain situations, but enabling as safe a learning environment as possible stretches beyond any legal obligation. Protecting students, both online and off, is a moral responsibility that fosters a productive and healthy learning environment for students and teachers alike.

Learn more about how ManagedMethods can help you spot safety signals and protect your students from digital and physical threats.

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