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School Transportation: Who is Liable for Your Child’s Safety?

We send our children off to school each day and wait for them to arrive home, delivered safe to our doorstep, secure in their safety at the hands of the school. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that sometimes, the unthinkable happens. 

One particularly gray area in how the law protects our children is in before and afterschool transportation. Over the years, cases have arisen from such unconscionable circumstances as children being dropped at the wrong bus stop and being abandoned without any adult supervision in sight. It may seem obvious who would be liable in the case of a school bus accident arising from negligent operation or maintenance of a school bus, but in many other circumstances, liability is less clear-cut. And the answers to who is liable for your child’s safety as they travel to and from school might surprise you.

How the Law Protects Your Child

School children are entitled to extraordinary protection under the law. High standards for supervision are assigned by the law to the schools that assume the responsibility of our kids each day.

Schools have a legal duty to provide reasonable care and supervision. Generally, the school is liable for incidents occurring when the “pupil is or should be under the immediate and direct supervision of an employee.” This extends to transportation to and from school as well.  

The school district is responsible for selecting bus routes and pick-up and drop-off points that do not “needlessly expose [students] to any serious hazards exceeding those which are common to typical school bus operation.”

What about students that aren’t provided with transportation?

Often students who live within a mile to a mile and a half from the school are not provided with bus transportation. The reasoning is that these students live within a safe walking distance. However, this may not always be the case. A lot can happen in a mile. As long as this is the case, however, the school has met the necessary requirement of “reasonable” care.  

Is Your Child’s Route Safe?

Walking Safe

If you live within the area surrounding the school that is deemed safe for walking but feel that there are too many hazards to your child’s safety, you may send a written request to the school district that a hazard study be done. The findings would be submitted to the Department of Transportation so the safety issue can be addressed. The more dangers your child faces, the more liability a district may incur should an accident occur. It is in their best interests to protect your child’s safety.

Riding Safe

The best thing we can do as parents is to teach our children bus safety if they are being transported in this manner to and from school. Making sure that our children are aware of the rules and talking to them about what to do if they feel unsafe and how to recognize unsafe situations can help protect them. While we would expect them to be handled with the utmost care under the supervision of others, such a protection cannot always be guaranteed. It is important to be proactive and to assess risk and work with our children’s schools to maximize their safety.

Tips for Assessing Risk and Understanding Liability

While our children are at least entitled to a high standard of care, it would still be prudent to make sure that our schools enforce these special protections for our children. Below are a few simple things to consider before putting your precious cargo on the bus:

  • Are arrival and dismissal procedures clearly communicated to families? Clearly communicated procedures indicate that the school is diligent about protecting their students. Publicizing this information both limits their liability and educates families.
  • Do bus drivers have checklists to verify the students they are transporting? Are there color-coded buses? What special procedures are in place for substitute bus drivers? Unfortunately many of the cases involving transportation incidents have occurred under the supervision of substitute bus drivers or at the beginning of the school year when drivers are unfamiliar with the students they are transporting.
  • Penalties for negligent bus drivers have ranged in these cases from being fired to merely being assigned to a different route. Younger children are not supposed to be left at a stop without an adult present. Contact your school district’s transportation office, or access their online information to read their policies and to find out if any negligence cases have been filed in the past. This information should be easily accessible.
  • Budget cuts mean fewer buses and fewer bus stops. Children are having to walk farther to get to their stops increasing the risks to their safety. “Walking Busses” are a safe alternative to having your child walk alone. A walking bus is enacted when a group of students walk to school in a group with one or more parents acting as chaperone. Speak to other families in your neighborhood to find out if there is already a walking bus agreement or start one up. The National Center for Safe Routes to School (SRTS) has further information on walking bus programs   

Unfortunately, numerous lawsuits have occurred over the years to put into place some of the safeguards that now protect our children throughout the school day. As in most things, prevention is the best way to protect our children.