Duty to Protect

The first element, the duty to protect, is clearly part of a teacher’s responsibilities. Teachers have a duty to anticipate foreseeable dangers and take necessary precautions to protect students in their care (McCarthy & Cambron-McCabe, 1992). Specifically, teacher duties include: adequate supervision, maintenance of equipment and facilities, and heightened supervision of high-risk activities. In the majority of negligence cases against teachers, the duty to protect is easily proven (Fischer et al., 1994 ). Clearly this duty applies to activities during the school day, however, courts have also held that this duty may extend beyond regular school hours and away from school grounds (e.g., after school activities, summer activities, field trips, bus rides).


Failing to Exercise a Reasonable Standard of Care

The second element that must be proven in cases of negligence occurs when teachers fail to exercise a reasonable standard of care in their duties to students. If a teacher fails to exercise reasonable care to protect students from injury, then the teacher is negligent. Courts, in negligence cases, will gauge a teacher’s conduct on how a "reasonable" teacher in a similar situation would have acted. The degree of care exercised by a "reasonable" teacher is determined by factors such as: (a) the training and experience of the teacher in charge, (b) the student’s age, (c) the environment in which the injury occurred, (d) the type of instructional activity, (e) the presence or absence of the supervising teacher, and (f) a student’s disability, if one exists (Mawdsley, 1993; McCarthy & Cambron-McCabe, 1992). For example, a primary grade student will require closer supervision than a secondary student; a physical education class in a gymnasium or a industrial arts class in a school woodshop will require closer supervision than a reading class in the school library; and a student with a mental or behavioral disability will require closer supervision that a student with average intelligence.

A number of cases have held that the student’s IEP, disability, and unique needs are all relevant factors in determining the level of supervision that is reasonable (Daggett, 1995). Additionally, school officials may be liable for damage claims resulting from a failure to supervise a student with disabilities when that student injures another student.


Proximate Cause

The third element that must be proven in a negligence case is whether there was a connection between the breach of duty by the teacher and the student’s injury; that is, the teacher failed to exercise a reasonable standard of care (element two) and this breach of duty resulted in the subsequent injury to the student (element four). This element, referred to as proximate cause, often hinges on the concept of foreseeability. That is, was the student’s injury something that could have been anticipated by a teacher? If the injury could have been foreseen and prevented by a teacher if a reasonable standard of care had been exercised, a logical connection and, therefore, negligence may exist. To answer questions regarding proximate cause, courts will attempt to ascertain "was the injury a natural and probable cause of the wrongful act (i.e., failure to supervise), and ought to have been foreseen in light of the attendant circumstances?" (Scott v. Greenville, 1965). Negligence claims will not be successful if the accident could not have been prevented through the exercise of reasonable care.


Actual Injury

The final element that must be proven in negligence cases is that there was an actual physical or mental injury. Moreover, although the injury does not have to be physical, it must be real as opposed to imaginary (Mawdsley, 1993). Even in instances where there is negligence, damage suits will not be successful unless there is provable injury.


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