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O'Hare Car Disaster Highlights the Risks In School Field Trips

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The school field trip, long considered a necessary element for a well-rounded education, can become a safety or legal nightmare when something goes awry.

That much was evident in Chicago late last month, where an elementary school's trip to O'Hare International Airport turned to tragedy when an automobile jumped a curb and plowed into dozens of pupils and adults gathered on the sidewalk outside a terminal.

A 3rd-grade student from Southeast School in Sycamore, Ill., was killed, and 62 other students and 14 adults were transported to hospitals, some with serious injuries.

The 87-year-old driver of the car reportedly told police he was pulling in behind the two buses that had just dropped off the schoolchildren when his accelerator stuck. The car plowed directly into the group, stopping only when it hit a lightpole. One witness told the Chicago Tribune that "there were kids and bodies all over.''

The Chicago accident highlights the danger that often lurks in school field trips and extracurricular outings. The duty of school officials and teachers to supervise their students can be made difficult to fulfill by the inherent dangers in transporting them to a distant site, the nature of the destination, and by emergencies that may arise.

Inevitably, problems stemming from field trips have resulted in lawsuits against public and private schools, as well as against teachers and other chaperones.

"It's not an everyday problem, but it is certainly one that can be very costly to a school district,'' John H. Dise Jr., a Detroit lawyer who advises schools on risk management, said last week. "In the cases that do arise in the extracurricular and field-trip categories, the injuries tend to be more severe.''

While there have been relatively few judgments against school districts stemming from field-trip accidents over the past decade, the threat of litigation alone is believed to have caused many districts to curtail trips or to modify the policies governing them.

A 1989 survey of school lawyers by the National School Boards Association showed that slightly more than 1 in 10 responding said their districts had canceled field trips altogether or modified their policies on trips. The lawyers cited lawsuits, high liability-insurance premiums, or a lack of available insurance as the reasons. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1989.)

A related survey of members of the National Association of Secondary School Principals showed that 26 percent of those responding reported eliminating or modifying field trips. Both surveys were commissioned by the American Tort Reform Association, a group that lobbies for legislation on behalf of defendants in liability cases.

The concern over field-trip liability appears to have eased somewhat since then, along with the lessening of the so-called liability-insurance crisis. But the risks inherent in school trips remain.

Claims of Negligence

Because problems on field trips have given rise to suits in state courts alleging negligence, school officials should become familiar with their own state's statutes and case law, legal experts say. A few states still grant immunity from lawsuits over simple negligence to political subdivisions, such as school districts, and their employees.

In interviews last week, school-law experts offered advice covering three areas: instructions to parents about the field trip, supervision of students, and transportation.

To students, the field-trip permission slip signifies a upcoming educational endeavor designed to be out of the ordinary.

To school officials, the permission slip or release form signed by parents is a legal document that offers only limited protection when something goes wrong.

For example, a Louisiana court refused to allow a school to cite a liability waiver as a defense in a lawsuit stemming from the death of a student nurse in a car accident on a school-sponsored trip to a hospital. An appellate court said that because the trip was a required activity, the student did not give "free and deliberate consent'' in signing the waiver. A $300,000 damages award against the school and its insurance company was upheld.

Most school trips involve minors, who have no legal ability to waive their rights. Any waiver signed by parents would not preclude others suing on a minor's behalf, school-law experts say.

But in at least one case, a permission slip helped prevent a teacher from being found negligent. The teacher was accused of negligence when a 17-year-old student drowned in a swimming pool during a field trip to a band festival. The boy's parents had given permission for him to go on the trip and use the swimming pool without informing officials that he did not know how to swim.

Ralph D. Mawdsley, a professor of educational administration at Cleveland State University, recommended that schools rely on permission slips or releases not only for legal protection, but also to provide parents with as much information as possible about the trip.

The forms should describe the place to be visited, the transportation, the time and place of departure and return, the trip's objectives, and what the student should bring, he said.

"The forms have great 'notice' value to the parent, who may know of a limitation of the child,'' Mr. Mawdsley said. "But if you are looking for a release form to exculpate liability, that's not going to happen as far as parents are concerned.''

Adequate Supervision

Adequate supervision of students can be a challenge on field trips.

"Make sure you have somebody in charge who is capable of handling field trips,'' said August W. Steinhilber, the general counsel of the N.S.B.A. "Be very careful of using volunteers. Plaintiffs at bar will say volunteers are not qualified.''

There is no generally accepted ratio of supervisors to students on a field trip, experts point out. School officials should take students' ages and other factors into account.

A Minnesota district that sponsored the trip of some 1,200 high-school students to see a film about Martin Luther King Jr. was found liable after a white student's arms were slashed by a black student. The district might not have ordinarily been liable for a student's misconduct, but the court cited racial tension at one of three participating high schools and a lack of supervision of students at the theater. The pupil-teacher ratio was 35 to 1.

However, in an Illinois case, school officials were found to have no liability for a racially motivated attack on a group of boys visiting a musuem. The students had been allowed to wander the museum unsupervised, but the court found that the unprovoked attack by an outsider on the students was not foreseeable by school authorities.

The Illinois court noted that field trips would be "impossible'' if teachers were required to "supervise and discipline the entire museum trip.''

Since field trips involve transportation, extra care is needed in that area, school-law experts stress.

Schools' use of student cars or other private or rental vehicles instead of buses can raise a host of liability issues. Volunteer drivers can be found to have acted as agents of the school, and thus the school district can be held liable for their driving.

In the Louisiana case involving the hospital visit, the court found that a rental van designed for 15 was overcrowded with 18 passengers and that the driver was not competent to transport such a large group.

Above all, Mr. Steinhilber advised, a school district "should have sufficient liability insurance.''

"There is something called the 'tyranny of tears,' '' he said. "Even if the school district did everything right, the jury still sees the injured child.''

In the aftermath of the O'Hare accident, school officials and parents in Sycamore, a town about 60 miles west of Chicago, were more concerned last week with helping the community cope with the death of the 3rd grader and the injuries of the others than with assigning blame.

Charles Norland, the superintendent of the Sycamore district, said students were still being counseled by crisis-intervention teams.

"We are in the process of getting help to the families and children and our staff,'' he said. "From that point, we are going to need to work through the insurance issue.''

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