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SCHOOLS: Teacher Immunity—In-School and on Field Trips

The Lawletter Vol 35 No 5, March 25, 2011

Anne Hemenway, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

With spring arriving, so too are the perennial school field trips to Washington, D.C., and other places.  Along with spring field trips, issues inevitably arise concerning school and teacher liability for improper supervision when students act out or get injured while in the care of the school.  Whether a field trip is at issue or not, as a general matter, until 2002, schools were under a duty to properly supervise students and could be held liable for foreseeable injuries proximately caused by the failure to adequately supervise students in the school's care.  See Reed v. Pawling Cent. Sch., 664 N.Y.S.2d 483 (App. Div. 1997); O'Campo v. Dale County Sch. Bd., 589 So. 2d 323 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1991); see also Lawrence T. Kahas et al., Legal Issues and Responsible Practices for School Chaperones, 252 Educ. L. Rep. 1 (West Mar. 4, 2010).  In Gearhart-Soto v. Delsman, 976 So. 2d 1150 (Fla. 2008), a volunteer chaperone sued the local school board for damages arising from injuries she had suffered while assisting a student on a field trip, allegedly because the teacher had negligently left the students unsupervised.  The court held that a material issue of fact existed as to whether the school board was liable for the chaperone's injuries.

Significantly, the scope of liability confronted by teachers narrowed significantly in 2002, when Congress enacted 20 U.S.C. §§ 6731-6738 (Westlaw current through P.L. 111‑349), the "Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Protection Act of 2001, §§ 2361-2368."  Under this federal Act, teachers and school officials are immune from liability for alleged acts of simple negligence and certain other actions taken within the scope of the teacher's employment.  20 U.S.C. § 6736. The Act also grants immunity to teachers for acts that have been carried out in a manner consistent with state or federal law "in furtherance of efforts to control, discipline, expel or suspend a student or maintain order or control in the classroom or school."  See id. § 6736(a)(2).  Prior to the enactment of this federal law, many states had extended immunity from liability to public school teachers for acts of simple negligence, but there was no such immunity for private school teachers.

The federal statute, however, like the state public school immunity laws, does not protect teachers from acts that are grossly negligent or that show reckless indifference to the protection of students, or acts that are criminal or that involve sex offenses.  See M.W. ex rel. T.W. v. Madison County Bd. of Educ., 262 F. Supp. 2d 737 (E.D. Ky. 2003).

In Morrone v. Prestonwood Christian Acad., 215 S.W.3d 575 (Tex. App. 2007), the court held that the federal Paul D. Coverdell Act applies to private schools as well as to public schools.  In that case, a kindergarten teacher at a private school and the school itself were sued for damages arising from the teacher's abusive conduct in the classroom, which had allegedly been directed at a student.  Concluding that the federal teacher immunity statute applied to the private school, the court held that the defendants had not engaged in grossly negligent conduct and were therefore immune from liability.

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