According to civil tort law, the term duty of care refers to a legal obligation in which one person must adhere to a reasonable level of diligence while performing acts or services for someone else. A very simple example of this would be how a doctor has a duty of care to their patients.
In terms of a child’s school, it is important to clarify that the school is not an insurer of a student’s safety. However, all schools do have a duty to exercise reasonable supervisory care for the safety of its students. As such, they may be held liable for injuries resulting from their failure to supervise. This duty applies to both public and private schools.
It is important to note that simply because a school is privately owned and operated, does not mean that they are above such regulations. Generally speaking, a private school will usually owe you and your child the same duty of care that a public school would.
The school also has a duty to supervise its pupils during lunch or recess periods. This responsibility is based on the theory that injury would generally be foreseeable when students in groups are left unattended during free periods. On a similar note, a school may have a duty to supervise children before or after school hours, if students are in groups in which dangerous activities could be reasonably expected to occur.
Although state intervention into the regulation and affairs of a private school is generally kept to a minimum, there is a clear right of the state to subject a private school to a reasonable degree of regulation in order to ensure the safety of the children that attend the private school. As such, if there are any issues related to the duty to provide a safe environment, the state is fully within its rights to conduct an investigation.
What Is My Child’s Private School Responsible For?
As previously mentioned, similar to a public school, your child’s private school owes you and your child the duty of reasonable care. Some examples of such duty include, but may not be limited to many of the following:
- Supervising your child during recess and lunch;
- Providing supervision any other times in which children will be playing in groups, as this is when foreseeable injuries are most likely to occur;
- Providing safe and clean classrooms, as well as educational facilities;
- Maintaining school buildings, including performing any necessary repairs to school buildings that the school is reasonably aware of; and
- Employing both qualified and competent teachers, coaches, and other staff who will provide proper educational and supervisory care for your child.
It is important to note that the duty to supervise is limited only to those injuries that are foreseeable. What this means is that if the injury is not something that would generally be expected from the event or activity that caused the injury, the school cannot be held liable for a failure to supervise students. An example of this would be how one court found it to be unforeseeable that a student would be intentionally kicked by another student following a basketball game.
Generally speaking, a school will only be found liable for breach of duty of care if proper and reasonable supervision could have prevented the injury. As such, there is no liability if proper supervision would not have prevented the specific injury. An example of this involves a case in which a student was hit in the eye with a paperclip. The presiding court maintained that proper supervision of the students could have prevented the injury.
However, sudden and spontaneous acts may still result in liability on the part of the school, due to the fact that just the presence of a supervising person may have prevented the act from occurring.
What Can I Sue a Private School For?
There are various reasons to sue a private school that may not arise in a public school setting. An example of this would be tuition disputes. Generally speaking, most of the claims brought against private schools are similar to the lawsuits that would be brought against public schools.
Some examples of when a parent may sue a school include, but may not be limited to:
- Discrimination: Federal laws, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), protect against discrimination in various forms. This includes sex, race, national origin and disability. In terms of a private school, you would not likely be able to bring a claim of discrimination for simply refusing to admit your child. However, if their reason for not admitting your child is based on discriminatory reasons, that would be illegal and therefore grounds for a lawsuit;
- Excessive and/or Severe Punishment: Most school systems have policies in place regarding the type of punishment allowed. However, excessive punishment is not appropriate in any setting; nor is severe and/or undeserved punishment;
- Bullying: An example of when you may sue a school for bullying would be when the school and its employees fail to stop the bullying of a student by another student, or a staff member;
- Failure to Supervise: The school district may face negligence charges when a student is injured while not being supervised appropriately, as previously discussed;
- Sexual Misconduct: Sexual harassment includes sexual assault, molestation, or rape of a student by a school district employee. It is important to note that the district may also be held liable for the harassment of one student by another student;
- Improper Expulsion: This refers to circumstances in which a student was expelled improperly, and has gone through all administrative remedies. If the issues cannot be resolved, the student’s parents may be able to sue the school; and
- Educational Malpractice: Failure to properly or satisfactorily educate a student may be grounds for a civil lawsuit, as the school has breached their duty of care to provide an adequate education.
What Are the Steps to Sue a Private School?
Individual employees employed by a public school district can be sued. Additionally, school districts can sometimes be held vicariously liable for their employees involved in the behavior leading to the lawsuit. You should consult with an attorney if you are attempting to sue a private school, as the process can be very different from suing a public school.
However, the following parties are commonly named as defendants in a school lawsuit, whether public or private:
- Vice principals;
- Counselors; and/or
- Individual school employees.
It may be likely that there will be several defendants in such cases. An example of this would be when a teacher is found to be guilty of discriminating against a student. It is then reasonable to consider whether their superiors were aware of the employee’s action and should also be held liable for failing to prevent their employee’s misconduct.
Generally speaking, the private school will have some form of conflict resolution process that you must adhere to before taking legal action. Unlike public schools, private schools are not protected by governmental immunity. As such, the process is not the same. However, if a private school accepts any sort of federal funding, it must comply with certain laws.
Do I Need an Attorney in Order to Sue My Child’s Private School?
If you wish to sue your child’s private school, you will need to hire an experienced and local government lawyer. Because private schools are privately owned, legal action against them can be complex and confusing.
An experienced and local government attorney will be best suited to helping you understand your legal rights and options, and will help you move forward with a lawsuit if necessary.