Schools can be held liable for safety concerns, such as school shootings, lack of safety protocol, and assault. Schools can reduce their risk of being sued by investing in safety measures and training their faculty.
Addressing school safety and security is not just the responsibility of school leadership, but it can protect schools from costly lawsuits. By taking steps to prevent violence, schools can help to reduce their risk of being held liable, lower their insurance premiums, and promote their school community as a beacon of wellness. Unfortunately, many school leaders feel an ever-present threat of lawsuits looming overhead; public schools are the most commonplace intersection of gender, race, sex, ability, and most importantly, the need to feel safe. Lawsuits have historically been filed by groups within the school community, such as students, parents, teachers, and administrators when schools fail to address these civil necessities.
As there have been many recent examples of lawsuits stemming from schools failing to address safety concerns, such as Oxford and Uvalde, we will analyze the different aspects of safety that schools can be held accountable for. We will also explore how schools can implement proven, effective prevention strategies in an effort to protect themselves from liabilities and enhance the wellness of their school community. In the long run, these financial benefits can far outweigh the costs of addressing school safety.
In probably the most high-profile lawsuit stemming from a school shooting, the parents of two children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting filed a lawsuit against the Town of Newtown, Connecticut, and the school board, alleging that school officials did not follow security protocols and that staff were not adequately trained for lockdowns. The lawsuit sought damages for the wrongful deaths of their children and for the emotional distress they suffered.
Ironically, the school had installed new access control hardware that required visitors to be visibly identified to enter the building, and the perpetrator was able to shoot his way through a window adjacent to the front entrance.
While the judge ruled against the lawsuit against the town and school, this situation highlights the need for schools to provide adequate training to their faculty. Even if a school invests heavily in physical security, threat prevention and reacting to a crisis are human elements that need to be addressed equally. Schools that don’t prioritize training their faculty with the most current best-practice methods will not be able to leverage their physical security assets, leaving them vulnerable to threats and liable to scrutiny and lawsuits in the aftermath of a tragedy. Trainings from safety experts are easily accessible and available to all schools invested in the wellness of their schools.
A group of teachers in Racine, Wisconsin are currently suing the Racine Unified School District over ongoing safety concerns. The teachers cite numerous incidents of violence and chaos in schools, including fights in the hallways and a student bringing a gun to school. In 2018 a grievance was filed by Racine teachers citing 15 instances where a teacher was injured by a student, highlighting the proliferation of violence in these schools and the lack of action being taken by district leadership.
The lawsuit also claims that RUSD has failed to provide adequate support for students and staff, such as more teachers, reduced class sizes, and full-time social workers and guidance counselors. The union representing the teachers, Racine Educators United, says that the lawsuit is about protecting the school community as a whole.
It’s become very apparent in the years following the return of students to school from the COVID-19 absence that there has been a decline in student behavior, resulting in more fighting at school, more violence, and an extremely toxic learning environment noted by teachers countrywide. These dangerous environments are making the prospects of becoming a teacher unattractive, and the number of teachers refusing to return to teaching this year has reached a new high. If this dangerous trend continues, we may find ourselves in a self-deprecating cycle where student behavior continues to plummet because of a lack of educational professionals, and the idea of becoming a teacher becomes unimaginable.
To combat this, schools need to have ironclad emergency planning and a firm understanding of their unique situation through risk & vulnerability assessments. Through these processes, school leadership can have an accurate account of what safety assets need to be invested in, and having the data provided from these processes will give district leadership the understanding and proof to justify these expenditures. Having up-to-date emergency planning is not only a practical way to combat and prevent threats to a school, but it provides faculty with trust in their leadership, so they know that safety is being prioritized through daily, conscious interactions with their emergency planning process. While district leadership may be apprehensive about investing in solutions that don’t have immediate, visible effects, meaningful “support” comes from investing in fundamental changes that will have long-term benifits. Fortunately, Drift Net has made the emergency planning and assessment processes as streamlined and rapid as currently possible.
In the scope of school liability, there are few cases more compelling to a court than school leadership failing to intervene in a history of repeated assaults. One such case involved a juvenile from Macon County, Missouri, who sued the Macon County R-1 School District after he was allegedly attacked on campus twice by other students. The juvenile alleges that he was first attacked in October 2022 by a group of 10 students when one hit him in the face. The substitute teacher on duty reportedly made no attempt to stop the attack, according to the lawsuit. The juvenile was then attacked again in December 2022 by a different student, who punched him in the face and knocked him to the ground. The lawsuit alleges that the full-time teacher who was on duty at the time also did not intervene.
Having full coverage of devices that can identify assault and relay that information directly to admins and first responders is a massive deterrent to on-campus assaults. We can’t rely completely on the decision-making ability of people who are not trained to deal with violence when it comes to the safety of students. Having devices that can not only detect these assaults but can issue audible alerts, communicate through 2-way speakers and issue warnings anywhere on campus makes up for the lack of ability inherent in a limited group of stakeholders.
Similarly, a woman has filed a lawsuit against Wilkinsburg School District, alleging that she was sexually abused by a security guard on campus when she was a teenager. The woman claims that the guard began sexually abusing her in 2009 when she was a middle school student, continuing until 2011 when she was a high school student. The woman says that she finally came forward about the abuse in 2020 after Baxter was arrested on unrelated charges. She filed the lawsuit against the school district in May 2023, alleging that the district knew or should have known about Baxter's abuse and failed to take steps to protect her. Two years of sexual abuse on campus is inexcusable; two years of sexual abuse perpetrated by a member of school staff is malignant negligence. Having full coverage of your school means everything occurs on campus under the light of day - no cruelties are unseen. The most current innovations in threat detection include multiple-sensory input, meaning no matter how hidden perpetrators of violence try to make their crimes, gunshot detection, thermal imaging and emergency trigger words will all work in tandem to prevent victimization at school.
The parents of a 15-year-old boy who died by suicide in January 2022 have filed a lawsuit against the Latin School of Chicago, alleging that the school failed to adequately address the bullying their son faced. The parents allege that their son, who has not been publicly identified, was repeatedly bullied by other students at the school, including being called names, pushed around, and threatened. They say that the school was aware of the bullying but did not take steps to stop it. A note was found on the scene of the teen’s suicide that detailed the bullying he had experienced and how it lead to his untimely death. Along with damages for their son's death, as well as for the emotional distress they have suffered, the parents are also seeking to change the school's policies on bullying and to ensure that other students do not suffer the same fate as their son.
Having an active threat assessment program will disallow any repeated bullying to fall through the cracks, as these assessments are comprehensive, and purposefully account for all parties involved in these types of incidents. Threat assessments are designed to provide action where simply “addressing” threats fail. If this school had an active threat assessment program, the victim would have been intervened, his mental health would be addressed, and a Suicide Risk Assessment would have been administered. Here, the warning signs relating to suicide would have been brought to light, potentially saving this child’s life.
In 2012, a 9-year-old boy was running in a relay race during gym class at Walter G. Smith Elementary School in Philadelphia. He tripped and fell, hitting his head on the concrete wall at the end of the gym. He was diagnosed with a concussion and suffered headaches and memory problems for years afterward.
His mother sued the school district, alleging that the school was negligent in failing to install padded safety mats to cushion the wall. The school district argued that it was immune from liability under the Pennsylvania Governmental Immunity Act. The Act generally immunizes government entities from liability for their negligence. However, The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the school district's failure to install padded safety mats could constitute negligence in the care, custody, and control of real property, citing an exception contained in the Act.
Site assessments are administered by safety professionals. They start by taking a bird's-eye view of the school's safety situation, accounting for the entire school community. As the assessment progresses, more details are accounted for. In the case of this 9-year-old boy, this would have included checking for safety padding in athletic areas. These site assessments are imperative to building an effective and accurate emergency operations plan, and cases like this are less of a misfortune and more of an expectation if a site assessment isn’t administered during a school’s emergency planning. Contact us if you are interested in resources to find a safety professional in your area that can perform a site assessment of your school.
Addressing school safety and security is not only morally imperative but also financially beneficial for schools. By taking proactive measures to prevent violence and ensure the well-being of students, schools can reduce their risk of being held liable, lower insurance premiums, and establish a culture of safety within their school communities. Recent lawsuits related to school safety concerns highlight the importance of comprehensive safety protocols and training for faculty.
Reducing the Cost of Insurance
Insurance companies often take school safety into account when setting premiums. Schools that have a history of violence or that have not taken steps to prevent violence may be charged higher premiums. By addressing school safety, schools can help to reduce their insurance premiums, which can save them money in the long run.