An Arizona appellate court ruled in February that a school district has limited responsibility to students travelling to and from school, including those children who are walking or bicycling to schools and bus stops.
The court specifically ruled that the school was not liable for injuries sustained by Jennifer Monroe, who was in fifth grade when she was struck and injured by a truck while riding her bike home from school, as she had been released from the school’s custody.
According to the brief on Monroe v. Basis Sch. Inc., 2013-0047 (Ariz. App. Ct. Div. 1 Feb. 10, 2014), the Oct. 17, 2003 accident left Monroe in a coma and resulted in permanent injuries. The accident occurred in a busy intersection that was equipped with marked crosswalks and traffic lights, located one block from her school. The charter school (defined as a public school under state law) had not stationed a crossing guard at the intersection.
When Monroe turned 18, she filed suit against BASIS, alleging the school had been negligent in failing to post a crossing guard at the intersection and in locating its school in close proximity to a dangerous intersection.
The trial court granted BASIS’ motion for summary judgment and concluded the school owed no statutory duty of care to Monroe, and she appealed. Yet, in the recent ruling, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision.
“The court held that a school does not have a duty of care to a student travelling to and from school when the student is not in the school’s custody or participating in a school-sponsored function,” stated the brief. “Schools owe students a duty of care, but it is not limitless.”
Questions about school districts’ level of responsibility, or blame, often arise after an accident results in a student injury or fatality. Peggy A. Burns, Esq., an education attorney and owner of the Education Compliance Group, told STN that she was not surprised to read of the appellate court’s decision as other cases have similarly held that schools may not necessarily be liable for accidents that occur before and after regular school hours — even when an incident occurs at one of its bus stops.
Research by the Kansas Department of Education, STN magazine and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that between a half-dozen and a dozen schoolchildren are killed annually in pedestrian accidents near or at their school bus stops, with the majority killed while crossing the road. While some school transportation departments prohibit bus stop locations that require students to cross, especially younger children, many do not have this stipulation when planning their routes.
“The Arizona ruling is typical of that in other jurisdictions. A duty of care when the bus is not there arises, as a rule, only if the school district is on notice of a substantial likelihood of harm if it chooses to take no action, despite the fact that the action necessary would be one within its authority,” explained Burns.
Essentially, she said school districts are not considered liable unless administrators and/or transportation staff had been made aware of a safety hazard, such as speeding motorists or a blind turn, in pedestrian areas around a school campus or school bus stop.
Sara Zimmerman of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership agreed that this ruling confirms the “common sense” understanding that schools are generally not responsible, or liable, for students when they are off campus and not under the school's supervision.
“However, it also points to the crucial need to invest in making it safe for kids to get to and from school,” she added. “We can protect kids by making streets and intersections near schools safe for walking, by providing crossing guards where they are needed and by investing in Safe Routes to School initiatives at the local, state and federal level.”
The Safe Routes to School National Partnership recently hosted a webinar that delved into school districts’ potential liability with crossing guard and walking school bus programs (listen to it here).