Recently, I have been thinking quite a bit about schools. My son is going to start kindergarten in the fall and my daughter just started preschool last week. While both of my kids are still little, over the years children end up spending many of their waking hours each week at school. The school becomes as much a part of their lives as home for most kids. As parents, we put trust in the school that they will be keeping our children safe and healthy while we are not around to supervise. But do the schools recognize that trust and live up to it?
I was recently made aware of a situation involving a teenager who was having some health concerns. Her parents had first noticed that their daughter seemed to be altering her eating patterns. Since they were not certain if there was a problem forming and what was going on during the school day, they called the school and asked if the school thought that there was any reason to be concerned. This seemed to be a prudent action for any concerned parent. But what, if anything, is the school required to tell the parents? What if the parents had not noticed a problem, but the school knew that something was not right, would they have needed to call it to the parents’ attention?
Legally, it turns out that a school is considered to stand in loco parentis over the children in its care. This fancy legalese just means that the school stands in as substitute parents during the school day. This is true of both public and private schools. The school holds a duty to protect and supervise students in its care. The courts have determined that this includes taking care to protect children from foreseeable harm, the way a reasonable parent would do if they were there.
So what does this all mean? Some of this is pretty straightforward. A school needs to protect your children from harm they could foresee. A school has to take reasonable precautions to protect children from getting hurt on the playground or from cars driving around the campus – to the same extent that a prudent parent would do so. For public policy reasons, schools are often a place where the government often takes an even more active role in monitoring children’s health – for example in doing hearing and vision screenings.
But what about other types of harms? Most parents would want to know if their child was being bullied, was showing signs of developing an eating disorder or was considering hurting him or herself. Does a school have a duty to inform parents anytime there might be a chance of one of these harms?
The law does not seem to be settled in on this point. Generally speaking, the school would need to take reasonable steps to protect a child if the school could foresee that the child was at risk of being harmed by another child in the school. The law is not explicit about whether that includes informing the parents. When the risk is not of another child hurting your child but of your child hurting him or herself, the law is much less clear. In Maryland, it seems possible that a school might have a duty to warn a parent if they believe a child is suicidal. The school counselor may have a duty to warn the parent as part of a duty to take reasonable means to prevent the child’s suicide. However, the law is not explicit about when that duty arises.
What do you think? Does a school have a duty to inform parents if there is a reasonable chance that a child might be a danger to him or herself? What if your child is engaging in behaviors that might cause harm over time? Is this the role of a school?