Between students and employees, nearly 20% of Americans are in schools each day. Children from five to 18 years old spend about 60% of their time in schools. Schools have a duty to provide a safe and healthy environment. The majority of students are minors, have no choice but to attend, and cannot be held responsible for ascertaining the potential hazards. Most parents do not thoroughly inspect schools for hidden hazards and do not sit in to observe health and safety procedures, especially as their children grow older. They shouldn’t have to.
Unfortunately, children are exposed to life-threatening dangers in schools every day. Hazardous conditions fall into a wide range of circumstances from exposure to toxic substances, which can cause long-term health problems, to immediate physical violence. An unsafe school environment can result in a variety of long and short-term problems including:
- Acute short-term illness
- Long-term illness
- Impaired learning
- Delayed or incomplete education
- Emotional trauma
- Physical trauma
Indoor Air Pollution
In 1995 the US Government Accounting Office reported that over half of America’s schools have poor indoor air quality. Indoor air pollution can come from many sources including renovations meant to improve schools, obvious contaminants such as cleaning supplies, and poor ventilation which is easily overlooked. Common contributors to indoor air pollution include:
- Cleaning supplies
- Furnishings which off-gas
- Carbon monoxide
Long-term health problems and death caused by poor indoor air quality may take years to surface. More immediate ramifications often go overlooked or unexplained. Poor indoor air quality can lead to:
- Respiratory infections
- Poor concentration
- Increased absences
- Significantly diminished academic performance
The Environmental Protection Agency has a program designed to improve indoor air quality in schools, but does not require schools to participate and has no enforcement authority in this area.
Until recently, many parents believed that serious physical violence was a problem limited to schools in low-income neighborhoods. Violence can be a very real problem in any school, and takes many forms. There are rare occasions when violence in schools can not be avoided, but more often schools fail to prevent these events due to one or more of the following:
- Inadequate security
- Failure to respond to or follow up on direct threats
- Failure to thoroughly investigate schools employees during the hiring process
- Failure to investigate student complaints against students, teachers, and other employees
- Failure to respond to persistent bullying
- Inadequate supervision
Parents often go to great lengths to place their children in schools that they believe are safe havens from physical violence. Sadly, in an effort to protect their reputations, these schools can actually become safe havens for sex offenders, bullies, and other violent criminals hiding in both the student body and the staff. When a school is responsible for violent behavior due to failure to respond to complaints or threats or improper employee screening, it can become a very difficult force to battle and should not be faced alone.
It is only natural that children will have accidents and get hurt from time to time. Most accidents which occur in schools do not result in serious injury and are no one’s fault, but sometimes accidents are the direct fault of the school itself. Schools can prevent accidents and injuries caused by various conditions including:
- Maintenance and construction defects (broken windows, stairs, etc)
- Dangerous or faulty playground equipment
- Unsafe parking lots
- Faulty escape routes
Children who are allowed to play sports are likely to become injured during the normal course of play. This does not excuse coaches who knowingly push their players beyond their physical abilities resulting in injury or death. Unnecessary sports injuries can occur during sporting events or during practice and may be the result of a coach’s direct or indirect action or caused by faulty equipment.
Schools are required to follow certain health codes when preparing food. They have a duty not only to follow safe handling and preparation procedures, but to provide adequate supervision during meals. Improper food preparation and inadequate supervision can result in food poisoning, life-threatening allergic reactions, choking, and/or death.
Public vs. Private school lawsuits
Both public and private schools are expected to adhere to a basic level of care which includes providing clean, safe, and well maintained facilities, adequate supervision and adequate security. However, lawsuits against private and public schools can be very different. Public schools are government entities. Suing a government entity is a complicated process and can mean that you have a shorter time limit for getting the process started (statute of limitations). When suing a private school you may or may not be suing a corporation.
Who is responsible for school injuries?
Occasionally a lawsuit for school injuries will be filed against one individual, but in most cases there are several defendants. Parties which may be held responsible for school injuries include:
- Other school staff
- The school itself
- School district
- School board
- Independent service providers (for services such as security or vehicle maintenance)
- Manufacturers (such as playground or sports equipment manufacturers)
Do I need an attorney?
Regardless of the type or size of school that you are fighting, navigating litigation against schools and determining responsibility can be complicated and confusing. After determining responsibility, you may be battling a government entity or large corporation, and insurance companies. In some settings you may face strong opposition from your community, and some schools are not above initiating a powerful media campaign in an attempt to swing public opinion in their favor. Schools place a high value on their reputations, and many will try to quickly and quietly settle out of court. Whether your case goes to trial or results in a speedy settlement, you must have an experienced attorney in order to receive the compensation that you and your child deserve.
If you child has been injured or killed at school, contact an experienced personal injury attorney today such as Silberstein, Awad & Miklos of New York, NY.