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School Liability: Who's Responsible When Your Child Is Harmed at School?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Find answers to frequently asked questions about when parents or students can successfully sue schools for injuries, harassment, or other harms.

Schools are generally safe places, but students can and do get hurt—on the playground, in football practice, or in fights. There are other kinds of injuries, too—like emotional or academic problems resulting from harassment or abuse. Do parents have any legal remedy when their kids have been harmed at school? As with so many things about the law, the answer is: It depends on the circumstances, including who was to blame.

When Schools Are Negligent

Schools have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for students. That doesn’t mean they have to guarantee that students won’t get harmed. But it does mean they could be considered negligent if they don’t meet accepted standards of care. And if that negligence caused an otherwise preventable injury, the school might be vulnerable to a personal injury lawsuit—even when the injury was an accident.

For example, schools may be liable for injuries that happen because of poor maintenance of equipment or school grounds, or because student athletes weren’t provided with proper safety gear.

When Poor Supervision Leads to Injury

Schools may also be liable for negligent supervision or hiring when students are hurt because school employees didn’t supervise them properly, or because school officials didn’t take reasonable steps to ensure that teachers, coaches, and other employees were qualified and didn’t pose a risk of abuse or other harm.

Liability When Students Are Hurt Leaving or Coming to School

School districts that provide transportation to and from school have a legal duty to make sure that transportation is safe, at least within reason. That means schools may be legally responsible if students were injured in an accident because the school bus had faulty brakes or the driver wasn't paying attention or didn't have proper training.

If a district doesn't provide transportation, it usually isn't liable for injuries that happen when students are going home or coming to school on their own. However, a school might be responsible if students (especially young children) were hurt after being released without supervision in a setting that school officials knew was hazardous, like a dangerous intersection just outside the school gate.

Details on Other FAQs About School Liability

Follow the links below for answers to some of the other most frequently asked questions about legal responsibility for school-related injuries.

When Are Schools Immune From Lawsuits? Most states have restrictions on suing public schools for personal injury. Depending on where you live, you may have to file a written claim with the school district before you can sue (with tight deadlines). There may also be limits on how much money you can collect in lawsuit against public school.

Can I sue the school for a teacher’s abuse or harassment of my child? When teachers or coaches bully or otherwise mistreat students, the school might be liable under certain circumstances.

Is the school liable when another student hurts or harasses my child? Learn about the legal hurdles when suing a school for student-on-student bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment and harassment based on disability, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.

Can I be sued if my child hurts another student at school? Under state parental responsibility laws, parents may be liable for their children's actions.

What are the consequences of signing a permission slip and release form for school activities? Before students can participate in school sports or other extracurricular activities, their parents often have to sign forms giving up their right to sue if the children are hurt. Sometimes, however, schools may still be liable when their negligence causes injuries.

Can I sue a school for educational malpractice? Courts usually reject lawsuits based on schools' failure to provide adequate education, but some students win with different kinds of arguments.

Can private schools or colleges be liable for breach of contract or misrepresentation? Students might get somewhere with lawsuits by arguing that schools broke a specific contractual promise or that for-profit colleges deliberately misled them.

Speaking With a Lawyer

If you suspect that your child was hurt because of the school’s negligence, it would be a good idea to consult with a lawyer. School liability is an area of law where the specific circumstances—as well as the law in your state—can make a big difference. An attorney with experience in a field like personal injury or education law should ask the right questions, tell you whether you might have a case against the school district (or someone else), and explain how the rules in your state apply to your claim.

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