Legal Issues and Laws Relating to School Safety
Every parent of a child knows that it's hard enough to keep their child safe at home, but a whole new set of challenges may arise when the child goes off to school. Some fear their child may be bullied or harassed; while others fear their child's sense of privacy or free speech may be jeopardized. Parents are also concerned with the general well-being of their child during school hours, such as whether the school provides appropriate levels of safety measures or whether there is a solid school discipline policy in place. Finally, some parents are simply concerned with whether their child's lunchbox and other school-related items meet the current U.S. safety standards.
Whatever the situation, most parents would agree that their number one goal in sending their child to school is to give them the opportunity to learn in a safe, peaceful, and secure environment.
Below is an overview of legal issues and laws pertaining to school safety that parents, guardians, and educators should be aware of.
Bullying in Schools
Bullying in schools is a growing and serious problem that occurs on school campuses across the nation. Bullying not only comprises the overall learning goals of educational environments, it threatens a student's right to attend classes on school campuses that are safe.
Both state and federal governments have recognized a student's need for school safety. Several states have passed anti-bullying laws, including California, Arkansas, and Colorado, aimed at making schools safe for learning. In addition, the federal government has laws in place, such as the First Amendment, Establishment Clause, and others aimed at making sure school districts provide equal protection of federal and state constitutional rights to all citizens, including students.
While parents of children who are bullied or harassed may file lawsuits against a school or school district for failing to stop the harmful behavior, students who bully are often suspended or expelled if a school determines his or her behavior violates student conduct codes and other laws. Schools can help minimize potential violations by enforcing codes of conduct that typically address various types of behavior.
Premises Liability at Schools
There are a growing number of lawsuits arising out of some school's failure to keep students safe while on school property. Under the theory of "premises liability", occupiers and owners of land (including schools) are legally required to keep premises safe for those who are legally allowed to be there. The law generally requires owners and occupiers of land to exercise a "reasonable amount of care" in providing a safe environment on their premises. However, because schools are typically utilized by young children, the law requires a greater amount of care to be taken in situations where students are present.
Parents of children who are injured may file a claim against a school or school district for contributing to a student's harm or failing to keep premises safe at school. This may include common situations where a child falls or injures themselves in some way due to a school's negligence, but may also include situations where a child is bullied, harassed, or becomes ill and the school fails to come to the aid of the student, or control the situation.
First Amendment Concerns
The U.S. Supreme Court has declared that students attending public schools do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate". (Tinker vs. Des Moines School Dist. 393 U.S. 503 upholding the right of students to wear black armbands in school in protest of the Vietnam War). Even so, while students are afforded First Amendment freedoms, their rights may be restricted. There have been a variety of free speech lawsuits involving public schools over the years. The Court has ruled that certain types of speech, including the wearing of certain clothing and religious symbols (for example, t-shirts with suggestive language or a necklace with the symbol of a cross) and participation in groups or associations must be applied in a manner that attempts to balance a student's free speech rights and a school's need to provide a safe learning environment.
Student Codes of Conduct/Discipline Policies
Most schools have some sort of student codes of conduct and other discipline policies which generally outline a student's rights and responsibilities within the student body. These policies also typically include types of behavior that are acceptable or inappropriate on school campuses (or even beyond school doors). Parents (or guardians) should read through these policies with their child to ensure awareness of important safety and discipline guidelines.
School-Related Product Safety
Because students often need various school-related items, it is important to know whether certain items or products pose any harmful risks. For example, over the years there have been important recalls on school-related items, such as BPA-lined plastic containers, clothing with drawstrings, non-insulated lunch boxes, and so on. To find information on these and other products, click here for a listing of U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission standards. Also, the CPSC offers back to school safety tips, including a printable checklist, that may be useful or you may wish to visit the CPSC website directly to find the information you may be looking for.
School safety is an important issue. Not only is it important for students to feel safe and secure in their school surroundings, it is important for their learning growth as well. If you are a parent, guardian, or educator who has school safety concerns, you may wish to contact your school's district and ask whether there are existing safety guidelines and policies in place. Otherwise, you may wish to contact an attorney to learn more about a particular law in question.