When Are Schools Liable for Negligent Supervision or Hiring?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
If your child was harmed because school officials didn’t adequately supervise students or screen employees, you might be able to sue.

Schools have a responsibility to provide students with a safe learning environment. When a school doesn’t meet accepted standards of care, it might be considered negligent. And when students are harmed because of that negligence, they (or their parents) might be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the school and receive compensation for their injuries.

A school’s legal obligation to its students includes providing proper supervision, as well as taking care when hiring teachers and other employees.

What Is Negligent Supervision?

Schools’ legal duty to provide adequate supervision comes from the notion that they’re acting in the place of parents while students are on campus or taking part in school-related activities. So teachers and other school employees should supervise children just as a sensible, careful parent would do in similar circumstances.

The level of supervision a school should provide to prevent accidental injuries can vary depending on various factors, including:

How old are the students? For instance, kindergarteners may need more supervision than high school students during recess.

What are the students doing? Riskier activities—like playing contact sports in P.E. class—generally call for closer supervision than lower-risk activities like study hall.

How much experience do children have with the activity? The first time students are learning how to do an inherently risky activity—like using a power saw in shop class or tackling in football—they probably need more intensive instruction and supervision.

How Far Does the Supervision Duty Go?

Schools are only required to provide supervision that’s reasonable under the circumstances. For instance, it’s not reasonable to expect a high school to have monitors stationed in every stairway and corner—even if it’s possible that a teenager could be assaulted by another student in one of those out-of-the-way places. But schools might be liable in situations where they could have predicted that children would be injured without proper supervision, and negligent supervision led to an injury. Some examples of these circumstances:

  • Large groups of young children are left unattended on the playground at recess.
  • Classes involve working with dangerous machinery or explosive chemicals.
  • Students are lifting free weights in PE class without a teacher in the room.
  • School officials know that students have been engaging in risky behavior—like a bathroom game in which boys punch each other in the stomach—but do nothing to stop it. (See, for example, McLean County Unit District No. 5, 8 N.E.3d 1203 (Ill. App. Ct. 2014).)
  • A school does not monitor a student who’s a registered sex offender in order to protect other students from sexual assault. (See, for example, N.L. v. Bethel School Dist., 348 P.3d 1237 (Wash. Ct. App. 2015).)

But schools usually aren’t legally responsible if more supervision wouldn’t have prevented the accident, such as when a student:

  • collides with another child during an age-appropriate game while a teacher is watching
  • jumps off a playground swing in full momentum, or
  • wallops another kid without warning.

Liability for Negligent Hiring and Supervision of School Employees

Because school districts are employers as well as education providers, they can be liable for employees’ actions while they’re doing their job (what’s known as the “scope of employment”). For instance, if a student was hurt in football while following a coach’s instructions, the coach was acting in the scope of employment.

But even when employees weren’t acting within the scope of their employment at the time they harmed students, the district may be liable for negligence in hiring, keeping, and supervising those employees. As part of their duty to protect students, schools have an obligation to take care when hiring teachers, coaches, and other employees—or assigning current employees to supervise or teach students. Schools should take reasonable steps to ensure that the employees

  • are qualified for the job, and
  • don’t have something in their background showing they would pose a risk for students.

For instance, a school might be liable for students’ injuries if schools officials

  • hired a guidance counselor with a known history of pedophilia
  • didn’t fire a teacher after learning about incidents of sexual abuse
  • employed a school bus driver who didn’t have proper training, or
  • didn’t properly supervise unqualified employees who physically abused a developmentally disabled student as part of a behavioral modification program.

Talking to a Lawyer

If you suspect that your child was harmed because school officials were negligent in supervising students or employees, consider consulting a lawyer. An attorney with experience in a field like personal injury or education law should be able to explain the state laws that apply to your situation, as well as possible grounds for filing a personal injury lawsuit. A lawyer can also explain the procedures and deadlines in your state for filing a notice or claim with the school district (generally required before suing public school, which may otherwise be immune from lawsuits).

Go to the main school liability FAQ page.

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