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Don't Get Sued: 5-step Guide to Teacher Liability

Dr. N.L. Essex


width=266Teacher liability is a critical issue. You are responsible for your own acts that may result in liability charges, so make certain that you protect yourself against avoidable liability suits. Here are 5 tips that will minimize potential liability suits.

1. Make Your Class a Safe Place

Courts view schools as safe places because students are taught and supervised by licensed teachers. You operate in place of parents for students assigned to your classes. You are also called on to perform three important legal duties—to instruct, supervise and provide for the safety of students as determined by the courts.

Simply stated, do all that is possible to warn and protect students from potentially dangerous conditions or activities in your school and provide proper supervision to ensure that your students are protected from avoidable physical injuries.

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2. Copy Off Other Teachers to Recognize Duty of Care

You are expected to exercise the same degree of care as fellow teachers would exercise under similar conditions. The standard of care will vary based on the age, maturity, experience and mental capacity of students in your classes and the type of activities in which they are involved.

For example, you will need to provide more oversight when supervising pre-school or kindergarten students using playground equipment based on your student’s ages, maturity and judgment. Similarly, if you were teaching P.E. or a science lab, more focused supervision and instruction are needed to prevent avoidable injury to students based on their use of potentially dangerous equipment.

3. Look Into the Future by Understanding Foreseeability Requirements

Be mindful that you are obligated to anticipate that certain situations may prove harmful to students. Once determined, you must take steps to prevent avoidable injuries.

For example, it may be all too common for one of your students to tell you that he has been threatened by another group of students. If you don’t take this information seriously and fail to inform your principal, you could face a liability suit if the student is actually assaulted and injured because the injury should have been foreseeable.

4. Caution: Avoid Negligent Behavior

Most liability cases involve teacher negligence where teachers fail to exercise the degree of care that is necessary which results in physical injury to a student.

It is important to know that teacher negligence involves four elements:

• The teacher must owe a duty of care to the student
• The teacher must breach that duty
• The student must suffer an injury
• There must be a direct connection between the student’s injury and your breach

All four elements must be in place to make a valid liability challenge by an injured student.

For example, you may be negligent if your class is left unsupervised for a period of time while you chat with a fellow teacher in the hallway. What could make this worse is that if you are aware that some of your students tend to bully other students on a regular basis. Then, it is conceivable that a student may be injured by another if left unsupervised. If it is necessary to be away from your class, simply ask a fellow teacher to check on your students. Make sure that a discussion is held with your students about your rules that apply to them while you are out of the room as well as the consequences involved if they violate them.

5. Use Good Judgement to Avoid Intentional Acts that May Harm Students

Intentional acts committed against students such as assault and battery in corporal punishment cases can occur if students are punished excessively because of disruptive behavior.

On the other hand, slander can occur if you leak confidential or sensitive information in one of your student’s educational records to co-workers that could damage the student’s standing in school or diminish the student’s reputation. Libel can occur when you write a letter of reference for a student and include negative opinions not based on facts that can prove harmful to the student.

To be safe, do not make unfounded damaging statements about your students at any time. The key for you in all issues involving liability is to exercise good judgment in your dealings with students which will certainly minimize your exposure to law suits.

What tips do you have for teacher liability? Share in the comments section!


Additional Resources:

Teacher Liability for Student Injury and Misconduct by Dr. Mitchell Yell
White House Education Agenda

Teacher Protection Act