Are Schools Legally Responsible For Student Safety?

are-schools-legally-responsible-student-safety

There are few greater joys than loving and caring for a child of your own. Parents go above and beyond to look after their precious gifts and go to great lengths to keep them safe. They expect their children to be safe when they drop them off at school. But are schools legally responsible for the safety of the students entrusted to them?

This article will answer that question and more.

Are Schools Safe for Students?

“Safe,” unfortunately, is a relative term. Therefore, the question is not so much, “Are Schools Safe for Students,” as much as it is, “Are Schools Safer Than Any Other Places?”

Data shows that a school is often a safer place to be in terms of the risk of homicide when compared to the home. But unfortunately, school is the place where bullying most often occurs. Approximately 25-33% of students report having been bullied at some point between elementary school and graduating high school.

However, even if a school is logistically safer than other locations in terms of raw data it is still alarming to think that any kind of deaths of students would occur at a school. Hence, it is worth considering the number of laws in place for student safety.

What Kind of Laws Exist for Student Safety?

There are a few administrations that govern the laws made to keep students as safe as possible. We will start at the top with Federal laws, and work our way down to examine laws covered by state and local entities.

Federal Laws

A large degree of school safety recommendations come from the Federal Commission on School Safety. The commission itself states that it is aware there is not a single, “One-size-fits-all,” plan for safety that can be applied to every school across the nation so the federal government is generally hesitant to pass actual laws for safety that are federally required. Instead, the Commission issues recommendations on a variety of areas that impact students and their safety (gun laws, emotional-support programs, and so forth).

The lack of actual Federal safety laws for schools ties-in with the conversation around, “Big Government” impeding on school districts. Hence, while there are policies in place, such as “Secure our Schools,” which provides funding for schools to purchase security equipment and security officers, actual laws implemented by the Federal Government for schools are relatively minimal.

Instead, grants are often given to schools to assist with safety. These will be discussed further below.

State Laws

As there are 50 States, there are 50 different State-law systems in place for schools. This can result in a wide range of differing State requirements for school safety. However, many states do have similar laws and policies.

For example, at least 43 States, as well as the District of Columbia, require schools to have a safety plan within their policies and 13 require these safety plans to be regularly examined and tested. Also, state laws prohibit any weapons on school property, the exception being police officers or school resource officers.

School District and School-Specific Laws

School districts and sometimes schools themselves can create and implement policies put into place by school boards or voted-on and approved by parents such as PTOs. Popular buzz-word programs, such as “Zero Tolerance,” have often been put into place by schools hoping to express they have no tolerance for weapons, bullying, etc. to somewhat mixed success.

Unfortunately, simply having a policy that says it won’t stand for bullying or violence does not simply make it stop. However, though some well-known concepts such as “Zero Tolerance” have had mixed success, the power wielded by individual school districts and schools to work towards student safety can be broad.

Many policies such as having school resource officers (police who are always at the school), or getting funding for things like metal detectors (addressed later in this piece) comes down to a school and its district itself.

This can be a good thing as it allows those concerned for their own school’s safety to be able to act, and not have to worry about petitioning the Federal or State Government. Just their own school and its district. This leads to the question of what rights parents have with ensuring their children’s safety in schools.

What Rights Do Parents Have in Public Schools related to their Children’s Safety?

Parents have a number of legal rights when it comes to their children and the school they attend. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was passed in 1974. It allows parents to see any and all documents about their child’s education, any punishment implemented, and any kinds of screenings of their children.

This includes general ones (hearing and vision tests) to cognitive and behavioral ones (e.g. if the child has been assessed as posing a threat to a school or not).

While parents and their children have a right to privacy, another family, of course, can’t see the documents of children who are not their own. Hence, a parent can be informed if their children have been bullied or threatened by another student. But they can’t simply demand to be made aware of any bullying or threats made within the school that does not involve their child.

This means parents can be made aware of any direct danger to their child but may be “left out-of-the-loop” about other general school safety issues. It is a double-edged sword of having privacy protected, but not always knowing about possible dangers at a school.

How Can Schools Earn Security Grants?

As covered above, the Federal Government often will have grant programs for school security. One grant put into place in 2014 as a response to the massacre at Sandy Hook is the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, which has been designed to give funding for research about gun violence in schools and how to prevent them.

Grants specifically for schools to improve safety can vary from those that come from the Government to commercial entities who donate funds to assist with school safety. These grants are numerous and have a wide range of qualifications, but schools that would want to acquire funds to meet their state and local laws and policies for safety can benefit greatly from pursuing these grants.

How Can Students Help Keep Their Schools Safe?

Students should always be encouraged to do all they can to help their schools be safe. Often times, students will be aware of things that teachers and administrators may not be.

Schools should have programs in place that allow students to report safety concerns openly or anonymously if desired. And as cyber-bullying becomes an increasing concern within schools, it is increasingly imperative that students not stand-by when they see possible concerns.

Instead, they need to tell adults who can check for risks of violence/bullying and stop them before they grow in severity and bring about deadly results.

Students, simply put, are often the first-line in school safety. While that is a big responsibility to ask them to take upon themselves, it can help make the difference between a safe and secure school versus one that suffers extreme bullying or a shooting.

How Do These Laws and Policies Impact Private Schools?

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Private schools have a greater degree of discretion to implement rules and policies to ensure student safety. They also–because of tuition–have more funds available to put towards student safety.

This has resulted in private schools being able to go above-and-beyond existing laws and policies to have a wide-range of extensive security methods. As a result, they are often judged as safer than public schools in regards to everything from bullying to gun violence.

While the data shows that private schools can be a good deal safer than public schools, that is a moot point for many parents–after all, the cost of private school is highly prohibitive for many families.

3 Tangible Ways to Create Safer Schools

Besides what is legally required for schools to ensure student safety, there are other methods and proposals that vary in their adoption and use by schools from being commonplace to seen less-than-often for assorted reasons. Some examples of these are listed below.

Threat Assessments

Schools can (and are at times required to) create and run a variety of threat assessments. A wide range of concerns can be examined, such as how a school would react in the case of an active shooter.

As well, performing assessments of specific students and if their words and actions could indicate they pose a danger to others. If schools act quickly in the event of seeing an imminent threat, they can address safety concerns before a possible threat turns into a violent incident.

Self-Esteem Programs

Studies have found that programs that are geared towards boosting the self-esteem of students are oftentimes successful. Happy students who feel valued are less likely to act out violently.

As with the above-discussed metal detectors, this is not a magic solution. These programs require well-trained staff to run them, and students who are in fact suffering from a great deal of mental illness require medical intervention. Even with the fact they don’t solve everything, self-esteem programs can be an important part of a well-balanced set up within a school.

Metal Detectors

Metal Detectors in schools is a subject that carries with it a great degree of controversy. But the data shows that metal detectors help reduce the occurrence of school shootings as well as weapons being brought to school.

Metal detectors are by no means a magic cure-all. The machines need to be kept in top-notch condition, and the security officers using them must be well-trained. Plus, the cost of metal detectors being put in schools can be too high for some public schools to implement them.

As metal detectors gain more acceptance (which appears likely with increasing concerns about school safety and shootings) it may be easier for schools to afford them via grants (as covered above) provided via the Government or commercial entities. Metal detectors in school is a subject that will most likely gain more and more consideration as time goes on.

Student Safety: A Comprehensive Solution is Required

The safety of students is a constant concern with no single, easy solution. Schools are legally responsible to keep students safe, but Federal oversight for this is minimal, with most of the responsibility falling onto States and school districts (or individual schools).

Schools can use this degree of discretion to try a variety of methods to ensure safety, but at times grants may be needed for more costly safety endeavors.

Adding various programs that help with student safety that are mostly required (threat assessments) or more controversial and less common (metal detectors) can be of use too, but as is evidently clear, there is no single solution.

With that in mind, the best practice is to take a multi-prong approach to school safety. Schools and school districts can have a huge impact on school safety by continuing to analyze and improve their security and safety policies, tools, and procedures.

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