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Must-Read Review of Educators' Legal Responsibility & Liability

Nancy W. Sindelar


Teacher Legal IssuesThe alleged child abuse scandal that rocked Penn State has put a spotlight on the legal issues and consequences surrounding the mandated reporting of child abuse.  School officials there are now in a position of defending themselves against alleged “inaction” and minimizing sexual abuse behavior as “horsing around.”


This extreme, headline-grabbing story shines a light on the legal responsibilities of educators. This is an opportunity to review what actions you can take to hopefully minimize liability and potential law suits.


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Applying Legal Lessons to Everyday Teaching

Mandatory Reporting

While there is no single definition of child abuse, the National Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (P.L. 93-274) defines child abuse and neglect as:

  • Physical or mental injury, sexual abuse or exploitation, negligent treatment, or maltreatment of a child under the age of eighteen or the age specified under the child protection law of the state in question, by a person who is responsible for the child’s welfare, under circumstances which indicate  that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or threatened thereby.

Thus, if a teacher or administrator suspects or is informed of a child abuse situation, they are required to report it.  Every state has child abuse laws and most provide criminal penalties when persons mandated to report (i.e., teachers and administrators!) fail to act.  Penalties range from jail sentences to fines as well as civil liability, whereby teachers and administrators can be sued for money damages, for failure to report.


While most of us imagine that we'd report an abuse if we had knowledge of it, abuse does not always appear as extreme as the allegations described in the Penn State example. It is crucial to understand all elements of abuse, negligence and liability that fall under an educator's legal responsibility to either report or uphold.


The reporting of child abuse frequently may be avoided because it’s an unpleasant topic, and often teachers are fearful of retaliation by the abuser.  Yet, it is critical that educators at all levels understand that it is their duty and legal responsibility to report child abuse.  States mandate specific procedures and some even have 24-hour “hotlines.” 


What Is Considered Negligence in Schools?

While failure to report child abuse is a form of negligence, teachers and administrators are placed in situations where they risk being accused of negligence on a daily basis.  If a student is injured---on a playground, in a science lab, on a field trip, even after school, teachers and administrators can be held liable for damages.


To hold a teacher or administrator liable, the student merely has to prove  four things:

  • 1. the teacher or administrator had a duty to be careful and not injure the student and to protect the student from being injured.
  • 2. the teacher or administrator failed to use due care
  • 3. the teacher or administrator’s carelessness caused the injury
  • 4. the student sustained provable damages, i.e., actually was injured.

While many precautions can be taken to protect students from harm on playgrounds, gym classes, and labs, one of the riskiest ventures we take as educators is field trips.  Though field trips provide opportunities for enrichment, they often involve settings that are less controlled and more difficult to supervise.  Many teachers and administrators think the “field trip permission slip” or the parental “waiver” releases them for the possibility of being sued for negligence. Not so, though parental waivers and permission forms are a good idea for informing parents of trips and special activities, teachers still have a duty of care, which cannot be waived by a permission slip.


Copyright Infringement

Mandated reporting and teacher/administrator negligence are merely two examples of legal issues teachers and administrators are confronted with on a daily basis.  Other legalities educators should understand are the copying of print materials, videos and software; the rights of students, especially as they apply to free speech and due process; and basic guidelines for student searches.


Each day teachers and administrators come to school with a desire to provide interesting and enriching opportunities for their students.  Given the current economic restrictions many schools face, it’s tempting to copy an engaging software program successfully being used by another teacher or copy workbook pages rather than purchasing the consumable from the publisher.  So often, laws are broken and educators’ lives and livelihoods are put in jeopardy while they’re in the act of trying to provide the best possible learning environment for their students.


Instead, tap into the slew of free resources available online and engage district and local library personnel to find out what materials you can legally access through their resources.


School Staff Development on Legal Issues

Because educators work in an increasingly litigious environment and put their personal assets at risk on a daily basis, the wise administrator provides legal direction for his or her staff---not specific, expensive, one-on-one legal consultation that is necessary for specific challenges---but staff development workshops on the legal aspects of education that will hopefully prevent costly and career-damaging legal challenges and confrontations.


What legal issues have you confronted in school? Share you story in the comments section!


Works Cited: Fischer, L., Schimmel, D. and Kelly, C.  Teachers and the Law (2nd ed.) White Plaines, N. Y.: Longman, 1987.


Note: Dr. Sindelar teaches Educational Law in the Department of Educational Leadership at Roosevelt University and has lectured on a variety of legal topics at the graduate school of Loyola University of Chicago and Northwestern University’s Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice at the Kellogg School of Management.  She also conducts workshops on legal considerations for teachers and administrators for the K-12 Teachers Alliance.


To book author Nancy Sindelar for a "Legal Issues in Education" teacher training, contact the K-12 Teachers Alliance.

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