As we approach summer, many children look forward to graduation or summer camp, or are excited about building memories and finishing the school year with exciting field trips and proms. Few schools and camps, however, consider the liability that might stem from relaxed rules, “summer fever,” and hastily organized activities. Many children are injured at this time of year when rules are relaxed and appropriate supervision is not always provided.
Graduation activities — all-night lock-in parties, in particular — present several dangers. All-night parties under school supervision are popular because they reduce the risk of alcohol and drug abuse by students who might attend other, nonsupervised events. But they expose students to a new danger: sleep deprivation, graduation’s night silent killer and the second biggest killer on our highways. Typically, event planners keep high school graduates, who have been in school since early morning, entertained from the beginning of the party until the next morning with a variety of activities. In the morning, students leave unsupervised and in a condition that research shows is similar to alcohol or drug intoxication — resulting in car accidents and sadly death. Yet, based on data I gathered through a telephone survey of more than 300 high schools across the United States, those who plan all-night graduation parties generally do not consider fatigue and sleep deprivation as potential risks.
A few easy and effective precautions can protect schools from lawsuits. Transporting students in school buses to the event and back home in the morning can save lives. Even if transportation is provided, adopting clear policies and procedures to protect students from driving while sleep-deprived is equally as important. These policies should specify that under no circumstances will any student, staff member, or parent chaperone be allowed to drive after an all-night graduation party. Other transportation options must be arranged. Schools have a duty to protect students from harm, and no reasonable educator would allow an intoxicated student to get behind the wheel of a car. Why allow a sleep-deprived student to do the same?
The same logic follows when it comes to end-of-the-school-year field trips and other activities, as well as half days and irregular schedules. Unfortunately, there are numerous cases involving field trips that resulted in drowning deaths, sexual assault, hazing, and bullying — all resulting from the lack of organization, clear rules, too few chaperones, or inadequate supervision of students. Special attention and planning needs to take place for students that have a demonstrated a need for extra supervision in the past or need one-on-one supervision. Teachers in charge need to maintain high standards of supervision for all students during field trips. Some considerations include:
- The age of the students
- Whether a student has a disability that requires additional supervision
- The number of adults needed to keep an eye on all the students
- The uniqueness of the location that might require additional supervision
- Safety hazards at the site, such as a river, cliff, or highway
All of these issues should be considered and addressed before the administration approves a trip and sends notices home to parents. Planning, clear rules and policies, and appropriate supervision can save a student’s life and prevent a costly legal battle for the school if a child is injured while participating in the activity.
Parents should keep liability issues in mind when researching summer camps. Overall, summer camp can be a valuable and delightful opportunity for any child, as it is a place to reach out and try new things, meet new people, and develop as a person. On the other hand, camps can be full of hidden liability traps; sleep-away nights, horseback riding, archery, rifles, rope swings — all involving children who are supposed to be supervised by trained adults (in some circumstances, college students), Many of these types of activities are accidents waiting to happen. Cases involving campers being injured or sexually abused as a result of poor supervision and staff training are not unusual.
To avoid exposure to a litigation-conscious population, summer camps have instituted the practice of making campers and families sign all-inclusive liability waivers. When well-written waivers have been in place, many verdicts have favored camps and other agencies that supervise children’s programs because parents released them from liability. If a camp or agency institutes clear policies, follows procedures, and does everything right, it is highly unlikely that a parent would win an injury lawsuit.
All-inclusive waivers, however, do not always protect a camp. A waiver is not valid if an injury can be attributed to the camp having breached a standard of care or if it was careless or negligent about supervision. If, for instance, the camp or agency didn’t maintain its playground equipment properly and a child was injured, the camp may be liable, invalidating the all-inclusive waiver. Depending on the specific issue of supervision (or lack of it), an all-inclusive waiver might not protect the camp.
Numerous elements should be reviewed when examining cases that involve injury at a school-sponsored event or summer camp. In no particular order, here are 10 key considerations:
- What risk-management procedures does the school or camp have in place?
- How are staff, counselors, and volunteers screened and selected? Are criminal background checks performed prior to supervision — even for summer jobs?
- How are volunteers trained before they supervise a school- or camp-sponsored trip?
- What kind of discipline code is followed? Is it enforced? By whom?
- Are yelling, bullying, harassment, or physical force tolerated? How are incidents of violence and abuse handled?
- Do students or campers know whom they can talk with and what to do if they feel unsafe or harassed?
- Are appropriate procedures in place to prevent teachers, counselors, and volunteers from being alone, one-on-one, with children?
- Are at least two counselors or adults present in each cabin at a sleep-away camp?
- On class trips, is there adequate supervision for the size of the group? Are there, for example, at least two staff members or volunteers for class trips of eight or ten students?
- Are age groups reasonably established and kept separate for activities and sleeping?
Meticulous planning will not necessarily prevent lawsuits in case of an injury, but it will keep children safer and could help a school, camp, or agency avoid liability. School and camp administrators should instruct their staff to consider all the possible dangers that might cause injury to a child at an all-night graduation party, a field day activity on school grounds, a day or overnight trip, or other end-of-the-year or summer activity. Make a list of how each of these possible dangers can be avoided. Looking at the possible unfortunate outcomes of injury and planning for the protection of children is the duty of those responsible for children in schools and camps.