When Are Schools Liable for Student Safety in Extracurricular Activities?
The Use of 15-Passenger Vans Revisited
Belen Campos was a high school student in Prosser, Washington. Her high school had allowed students to participate in an Upward Bound program. The Prosser School District recommended the program and gave Upward Bound the names of students who were eligible to participate. Belen Campos' school released the students with excused absences to participate in Upward Bound program activities. The principal referred to the district and the Upward Bound program as a "partnership" and allowed the program to use the school facilities "free of charge" for some of its activities.
On this day in December, the school district had allowed Belen Campos and eight other students to travel with the Upward Bound program to visit a local college. They were traveling in a 15-passenger Ford van when the van encountered black ice. The driver lost control, and the van rolled over. Belen Campos and one other 15-year-old student sustained fatal injuries.
Mr. and Mrs. Campos filed suit in a U.S. district court in Washington, alleging that the school district was negligent for failing to supervise its students, in releasing them to travel in the 15-passenger van, and for failing to warn either the student or her parents of the dangers of riding in a 15-passenger van.
Was the school district liable for negligent supervision and failure to warn in this case? You be the judge!
Campos v. Prosser School District, 2008 WL 4587298 (E.D. Wash.)
Answer When Are Schools Liable for Student Safety in Extracurricular Activities?
The Use of 15-Passenger Vans Revisited
The Upward Bound program is a federally funded program that is organized and administered by Columbia Basin College (CBC). The program "targets high school students who generally would be the first students in their family to attend college or students from economically disadvantaged families. CBC employees visit various high schools and recruit students into the program."
The school district had encouraged and recommended students for the Upward Bound program. It excused students to participate in the program. The district allowed the program to use school facilities "free of charge." The principal had even called the district and the Upward Bound program a "partnership." Was this enough to conclude the district negligently supervised students and failed to warn students and their families of the dangers of a 15-passenger van?
Whereas the parents claimed that the district was responsible for their daughter's death, the district asserted that even if 15-passenger vans presented known dangers, it was not legally obligated to supervise the victim or any of the other students, because they were not in the district's custody or control at the time of the accident.
However, the Court stated the following:
School districts are charged with the responsibility of supervising children under their control during the time that they are at school under the doctrine of "in loco parentis." This duty to supervise and protect students is based on the assumption that the school district has direct control of the student and the parent does not during the time the student is at school ... A duty of reasonable care is imposed by law on the school district to take certain precautions to protect the pupils in its custody from dangers reasonably to be anticipated ...
Responsibility of a school district to supervise students is not limited to school hours, school property, or school curricular activities. The duty to supervise also extends to school sponsored extracurricular activities under the control of the school and within its scope of authority ... To qualify as school sponsored, the activity must be within the scope of the school's authority and the school must exercise control over the activities ...
The basic premise for district fault in a custodial supervision situation is that a school district has the power to control the conduct of its students while they are in school or engaged in school activities, and with that power goes the responsibility of reasonable supervision ... As noted by school, "it stands to reason that when the student is not in the district's custody and control then the district does not stand in the shoes of the parent and does not have the power to control the conduct of the student."
The court did concede that the school district had approved the student's absence from school so that she could attend the field trip, but it concluded that there was no evidence that it had control over the Upward Bound program or the transportation related to the program's activities. The Upward Bound program employees transported the victim and others in the 15-passenger van on the day of the accident. The school "did not exercise or assume control or supervision over the Upward Bound Program in general or the CBC planned and organized field trip. ...CBC is solely responsible for administering the Upward Bound Program[;] the District did not have any authority to make decisions regarding the program, and CBC exercised and assumed control and supervision over and arranged the transportation for the Upward Bound Program field trip."
The court concluded that the school district "had no authority to direct how the students would be transported on the Upward Bound Program field trips," and therefore it could not be liable for the victim's death on the basis of negligent supervision. It granted the school district's request to dismiss this claim.
The parents of the student also claimed that the school district was negligent for failing to warn its students and their parents of the dangers of traveling in a 15-passenger van. The court did conclude that the parents had provided a sufficient amount of evidence supporting their claim that 15-passenger vans have known safety problems. However, the court ruled that the school district had no legal duty to warn the student or her parents of the dangers of 15-passenger vans since the student was not in the custody of the school district when she participated in the field trip.
What Can We Learn from This Case?
First, this case contains a good analysis of the liability of a school for offcampus trips. The court stated that when a parent places the child in the school, the school acts "in loco parentis" (in place of the parent), and this means that a school must exercise the same care a parent would exercise in the supervision and protection of the student. This duty would extend to activities and events that are off the school campus but are "under the control of the school and within its scope of authority."
Second, the court stated that the parents had presented sufficient evidence supporting their theory that the 15-passenger van used for the field trip had known safety problems. This is a recognition given by a federal court of the possible dangers associated with 15-passenger vans. ACSI has published several articles since 1993 warning against the use of these vans. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a number of advisories questioning their safety. Schools should be familiar with the risks that 15-passenger vans pose. Yet, every day, you can drive down the street and see one of these vans that has a school, preschool, or college name on its side. Statistics show that from 1997 to 2006, 1,090 deaths have occurred from crashes involving 15-passenger vans. This continues to be a problem. Last September, in a 15-passenger van filled with cheerleaders and coaches from an Arizona high school, two passengers were killed as the van rolled over.
Since 1993, ACSI and many other groups have warned about the dangers associated with 15-passenger vans. ACSI has recommended that schools not use 15-passenger to transport students.
Notice: These articles are designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. They have been provided to member schools with the understanding that ACSI is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, tax or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. Laws vary by jurisdiction and the specific application of laws to particular facts requires the advice of an attorney.