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School Safety Patrol: Legal Liability

A Long Respected Tradition

For more than eight decades, the AAA School Safety Patrol™ program has provided a safer pedestrian environment and a wide spectrum of educational opportunities for millions of school children.

Today, the AAA School Safety Patrol™ program boasts approximately 500,000 student patrol members at some 50,000 schools. The program has been praised by safety and education groups around the globe for reducing injuries and deaths among five– to fourteen–year–olds, the age group most at risk for pedestrian injury.

Nonetheless, because of the nation's litigious atmosphere, school officials are concerned about liability issues surrounding virtually every activity and program, from sports activities to chemistry experiments. It clearly makes sense for school officials to consider such issues.

This information will demonstrate just how little legal risk the AAA School Safety Patrol™ participants actually undertake and how you can protect your organization from even this small degree of potential liability. When you follow the advice in this document, you'll be minimizing your legal exposure and implementing a process that has helped create thousands of excellent AAA School Safety Patrol™ programs across North America.

AAA School Safety Patrols Have Never Incurred Liability

Three and a half decades ago, Dr. Marion McGhehey, secretary–treasurer of the National Organization on Legal Problems of Education, was able to say: "There is no known case in a court of record in which the liability of school districts, school board members or school administrators with respect to the AAA School Safety Patrols, has been decided." Today the same claim can be made.

Kevin Mohr, attorney with the Chicago–based legal practice of Clausen Miller Gorman Caffrey & Witous, did extensive legal research on this liability issue in federal and insurance databases. "There are presently no reported decisions," says Mohr, "in which student performance pursuant to a school district's School Safety Program was at issue."

This is a remarkable legal record, especially if you consider the numbers involved. Conservatively, each patrol member is involved in ten pedestrian interactions every morning and ten every afternoon for a total of twenty interactions a day. This generates 3,600 interactions per patrol member for each 180–day school year. At this rate, the 500,000 student patrol members accomplish roughly 1.8 billion pedestrian interactions annually.

In more than eight decades, not one of these interactions, numbering in the many billions, has been recorded as producing even a single judicial finding of school liability.

School Liability: Avoid Extremes, Avoid Liability

Attorneys have noted that were a patrol case to proceed to trial, the burden of proof would rest with the claimant. Liability in most injury cases is dependent on the proving of negligence.

John B. Mancke, an attorney with the law firm of Mancke and Wagner, writes in the Journal of Law and Education, "To recover [monetary damages], the claimant must prove negligence and proximate causation and successfully overcome defenses asserted by the school district.

"The claimant must prove that the employee owed a duty to the claimant, that there was a breach of duty, and that the breach was the proximate cause of the injury or damage. The general duty owed by [a school] is the exercise of a reasonable or prudent care under the circumstances required to prevent persons from suffering from foreseeable risks."

Therefore, a crash or other incident occurring while a patrol member performs his or her assigned duties is unlikely to constitute negligence.

"I've never seen a case where a plaintiff sued on the basis that an [SSP member] negligently performed their duties," says Henry Maher, senior partner at Plunkett and Cooney, a Detroit law firm that represents several school districts. Suits based on negligence would be more likely to originate in extreme cases of administrative oversight or in direct violations of state and federal statutes. Here are three examples:

  • If a school allows patrol members' absences to go un–replaced, plaintiffs in an injury case could assert that the school should have maintained procedures for providing replacements.
  • If a pupil was detained at school beyond the hours of patrol duty and was subsequently injured on the way home, plaintiffs could argue that faulty communication with school staff allowed the student to be detained too long and thereby constituted a negligent act.
  • If a student patrol member was placed at a very busy intersection, plaintiffs could argue that the assigned duties were beyond his or her capabilities.

These types of oversights can be avoided by providing a soundly developed and conscientiously managed program, just as thousands of schools have done since 1920, when the movement was first getting underway. Schools have found that following the basic tenets of the AAA School Safety Patrol™ program provides a strong defense against liability.

For instance, the national policies and practices for the AAA School Safety Patrol™ states "when vehicular traffic is such that adequate safe gaps do not occur at school crossings at reasonably frequent intervals to allow pupils to cross the street or highway safely, the traffic problem is not an [SSP] responsibility of traffic authorities. If outside authorities are needed, involve them." In this case, as in many others, the polices and practices steer SSP programs far away from liability by clearly and simply telling the program how to avoid an inappropriate activity.

Kevin Mohr, the Chicago attorney, reminds us that there seems to be no legal precedent, that "any speculation as to what situations would constitute negligence is pure conjecture, because the issue simply hasn't been addressed." As of yet, extensive searches have not produced any recorded cases.

Building a Worry–Free Program

Experts agree that it is relatively easy to establish and maintain a safe program for both your students and organization by following these basic steps:

  • Adopt a well–constructed plan of operations. The polices are a great help in this area. Key national education and safety organizations create and update this document, and you can use it to build a well–managed program. Also, consult with nearby schools who have established programs.
  • Secure parental permission for patrol participation.
  • "Be sure your selection of supervisory staff and student patrol members is prudent," says Maher, senior partner at Plunkett and Cooney. "It is important to select mature students who understand their responsibilities." Ensure that students can handle the tasks they are given and the situations in which they are placed.
  • Check the health records of potential SSP members. Some conditions, in some cases, may make students ineligible for certain patrol duties.
  • Establish procedures to verify patrol member presence on a daily basis and to cover for any absences.
  • Limit the scope of patrol member duties. For example, student patrols should be placed at low–traffic intersections or work together with adult crossing guards. They should never be used to direct traffic. Patrol effectiveness lies in their identification of safe gaps in traffic, during which students can cross safely.
  • Specify hours of patrol duty clearly.
  • Make sure patrol members understand their roles and duty limitations. Communicate this information, along with hours of patrol duty to school staff, parents and the general community. Solicit their questions and suggestions.
  • Conduct appropriate training sessions for supervisory staff and patrol members.
  • Involve the community in planning. A committee representing the school, police, PTA, traffic engineering professionals and civic organizations should be responsible for designating safe routes to school, crosswalk locations and patrol post sites.
  • Contact your state department of education regarding applicable statutes.
  • Employ solid management structures, ones that make it easy to stay on top of the day–to–day operations and to use periodic reviews.
  • Document your efforts. Documentation will improve your program's organizational process and efficiency, and reduce the likelihood of liability.
  • Consider acquiring liability insurance for your program and employees.
  • Finally, contact the Traffic Safety department of your AAA club. Their AAA School Safety Patrol™ materials and staff will help you create an excellent program.

On the Safe Side

The following are general guidelines for minimizing your risk:

  • Select staff and patrol members prudently.
  • Secure parental permission for patrol member participation.
  • Establish procedures to cover for absences.
  • Limit patrol member duties and hours appropriately.
  • Conduct proper training of staff and patrol members.
  • Carry out regular program reviews.
  • Involve community members and organizations in planning.
  • Learn about relevant state and federal statutes.
  • Consider the added protection of liability insurance.
  • Secure expert advice and assistance from your local AAA club.
  • Document your efforts.
  • Emphasize communication.

The Best Defense

The AAA School Safety Patrol™ Program upholds a rich tradition of educating and protecting students. The national pedestrian rate per 100,000 children ages 5 to 14 has dropped by 93 percent since the first year records were kept in 1935.

Experts credit the AAA School Safety Patrol™ programs with making a strong contribution to this marked improvement. Also, through safety education, the program works to reduce crashes and thus to minimize opportunities for litigation. Patrols provide the opportunity for all students to learn valuable safety skills in a peer-to-peer situation. Student patrol members get to lead by example, providing fellow students with lifelong lifesaving skills while they engage in citizenship– and leadership–building activities.

By following in the footsteps of thousands of North American schools, your school can provide the highest degree of safety. Although educational institutions must be mindful of liability, be assured that the liability risk derived from participation in the AAA School Safety Patrol™ program is truly minimal. In short, an excellent AAA School Safety Patrol™ Program is your best protection.

Resources:

  • AAA School Safety Patrol™ Member Handbook Stock # 3237
  • AAA School Safety Patrol™ Operations Manual – Available online