Author: Anisa Pillai, Attorney at Law
Although there is no specific statute or case law which explicitly requires school staff to physically intervene to prevent students from harming themselves or others, they may be obligated to do so given the special relationship that exists between schools and students.
Special Relationship Between Schools and Students
Schools owe a special duty of care to the students in their charge. This duty requires school employees to take reasonable steps to keep students from harming themselves or others, which may include intervening or restraining students when necessary to prevent injury.
Specifically, courts have found that a special relationship exists between a local educational agency (LEA) and its students which imposes an affirmative duty on LEAs to take all reasonable steps to protect its students. (Rodriguez v. Inglewood Unified School Dist. (1986) 186 Cal.App.3d 707, 715). This special relationship gives rise to an LEA’s duty to supervise students: “It is the duty of school authorities to supervise at all times the conduct of children on the school grounds and to enforce those rules and regulations necessary to their protection.” (M.W. v. Panama Buena Vista Union School Dist. (2003) 110 Cal.Appl4th 508, 517).
The standard of care imposed upon an LEA in supervising its students is “the degree of care which a person of ordinary prudence, charged with [comparable] duties, would exercise under the same circumstances.” (Id. at pg. 518) Either a total lack of supervision or ineffective supervision may constitute a lack of ordinary care on the part of those responsible for supervision. (Id.) For example, a school district was found guilty of negligent supervision of its students when a student’s leg was broken by another student during the lunch hour. According to the court, the school had only one teacher on yard duty for 150 students; if more than one teacher had been assigned to yard duty on the day in question, then it is likely that one of them would have seen or heard the fight going on and stopped it before it resulted in serious injury. (Charonnat v. San Francisco Unified School Dist. (1943) 56 Cal.App.2d 840, 844).
Overall, it appears that courts have imposed an affirmative duty on LEAs to supervise students, including the duty to intervene or use physical force, in order to protect students from conduct which may result in physical injury to themselves or others.
Additionally, California law authorizes, but does not require, school staff to use reasonable force against students under certain circumstances. Specifically, school employees are authorized to use an amount of force that is reasonable and necessary to quell a disturbance threatening physical injury to persons or damage to property, for purposes of self-defense, or to obtain possession of weapons or other dangerous objects within the control of the pupil. (Ed. Code § 49001)
Liability of Schools and Employees
Because a school is under a mandatory duty to take all reasonable steps to protect its students from injury, an LEA may be found liable for an injury to a student when the school failed to discharge this duty. (Gov. Code § 815.6) In other words, it’s possible that a court could find an LEA liable for failing to use physical force or restraint to protect a student (for example, during a fight when engaged in self-injurious behavior), when that failure leads to an injury of a student. In defense, the LEA may argue that it exercised reasonable diligence to discharge the duty.
Overall, LEAs should ensure that employees are carrying out their duties conscientiously and following LEA policies and procedures for carrying them out. It appears unlikely that an LEA will be held liable for a student injury as long as the employee took reasonable steps to prevent the injury. However, if an employee failed to act entirely or fails to use an amount of force that is reasonable and necessary under the circumstances, this failure led to a student injury, it is possible that an LEA could be held liable for such injury due to the failure of the employee to exercise reasonable care.
In order to ensure safe, supportive, and positive school environment conducive to student learning and to minimize exposure for claims of negligence for physically intervening with students, LEAs should ensure that:
1. Employees are adequately trained in crisis prevention and intervention techniques and strategies;
2. Employees are knowledgeable of and follow LEA policies and procedures aligned with state and federal laws at all times;
3. Students receive adequate supervision while on school grounds or at a school-sponsored event; and
4. Employees take all reasonable steps to intervene to protect students from harming themselves or others.