Barclay Damon
Barclay Damon

Legal Alert

School Districts May Assume Heightened Duty Toward Students Based on Implementation of Policies and Procedures

A school district’s duty of care toward its students generally ends when it relinquishes custody of the student. Stated another way, once the student has passed outside the school’s authority so that a parent is free to resume control of the child’s protection, the school’s custodial duty ceases. See Pratt v. Robinson, 39 N.Y.2d 554 (1976). In Pratt, a student was hit by a truck three blocks from the school bus stop while she was walking home. The Court of Appeals held that when the school district undertook to offer busing, it merely extended its control over its students from the school door to the bus stop. At that point, with the student having been set down in a safe spot, and nothing untoward having occurred in the course of the disembarkation, the school district’s transportation program no longer substituted for parental control, and, thus, it bore no further duty to the child on the basis of its special role as custodian. Accordingly, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department’s dismissal of the complaint against the school district was affirmed.

In so ruling, the Court of Appeals drew a clear line demonstrating there was “no basis, either in statutes or common law, for the creation of a school's duty to protect its students from hazards which may beset them once they are on their way home and outside the control of the school.” See Williams v. Weatherstone, 23 N.Y.3d 384 (2014). However, despite this delineation, there are notable exceptions of which educational establishments should be aware. Notably, liability can be established where the school district releases a child without further supervision into a foreseeably hazardous setting it had a hand in creating, irrespective of the physical distance between the school and the location of the reasonably foreseeable risk.

This exception to the general rule was recently relied upon in the Appellate Division, Fourth Department’s decision in Deng v. Young, 163 A.D.3d 1469 (4th Dep’t 2018). In Deng, the plaintiff’s son was an eight-year-old elementary school student who missed his after-school bus. In violation of the defendant school’s policies, the student was instructed to walk home by school personnel. During the two-mile walk home, the student was struck by a car and sustained a fractured skull. The court reinstated the complaint against the school and held that the plaintiff had raised a triable issue of fact concerning whether the school had released the child into a “foreseeably hazardous setting.” The court limited the holding to instances whereby the student does not have parental permission to walk home and noted the same would not apply to instances where a student has permission or typically walks home as part of her normal routine.

As a result, it is imperative that school districts and their employees create and follow policies and procedures that are specifically tailored to the needs of their students. A deviation from an established policy can create the basis for liability against the school in the future.

If you have questions regarding the information presented in this alert, please contact Julie Cahill, associate, at jcahill@barclaydamon.com or another member of the firm’s Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area.