Just as violent incidents inside schools forced officials to upgrade safety and security measures within their walls, recent events are now raising questions about what should be done to protect students as they travel to and from school.
At least 26 deaths have occurred from violent incidents at or near public schools or school bus stops since August. Roughly half happened outside of school buildings at bus stops, street corners, and parking lots—places frequented by students before and after school hours, according to National School Safety and Security Services, a school-safety consulting firm in Cleveland that tracks school crime.
Safety experts are becoming increasingly concerned about violence outside school buildings.
“There is reason to be concerned, because there has been a relatively good amount of very serious crimes,” said William Modzeleski, the associate deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of safe and drug-free schools. “Most of these school shootings take place outside the school, after school hours, when principals and teachers lose a lot of control over their kids.”
Schools are clearly responsible for the safety of students on school property, but experts say a more difficult question remains: Who is ultimately responsible for ensuring the safety of youngsters when they are traveling to and from school?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of a school district’s scope of legal responsibility, said Naomi E. Gittins, a senior staff lawyer for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association. Depending on state law, policy, and practice, schools may or may not be held responsible for students as they travel to and from school, she said by e-mail.
In the eyes of many parents, schools have a portal-to- portal responsibility that applies from the moment the student leaves home to attend school to the moment that the student returns, said Ken Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services. But, he added, it’s virtually impossible for a district or school to completely protect students when they are off campus.
“The potential threats facing students—from gang violence and student conflicts to sexual predators—as they travel to and from school are so many, you really can’t prevent them all,” Mr. Trump said. “You don’t know what you’re trying to prevent sometimes.”
Ronald Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, based in Westlake Village, Calif., agrees.
“It’s difficult to have safe schools without safe communities,” Mr. Stephens said. “If you have a school surrounded by a 360- degree perimeter of crime, it becomes a bit unrealistic to expect the school to behave perfectly while the community runs amok.”
Numerous state courts have exempted school districts from the legal responsibility for a student’s safety between the bus stop and their home, according to a legal brief filed by the National School Boards Association in the Arizona case of Warrington v. Tempe Elementary School District.
According to the January 2000 legal brief, an elementary school student was dropped off at a bus stop in September 1999 by a school bus when he was approached by another student who had previously threatened him. To avoid an attack, the student ran away from the bus stop and into the street. He was hit by oncoming traffic and sustained serious brain and spinal injuries.
The student’s parents sued the school district, alleging that it had negligently placed the bus stop in an unsafe location with a foreseeable risk of harm.
But the NSBA disagreed in its legal brief, arguing that the district should not be held liable because the school bus delivered the student safe and sound to his neighborhood bus stop.
“School boards ... are not insurers of students’ safety, and a school board’s control over its students regarding transportation extends from when a school bus picks up a student at a bus stop to the school door,” the brief stated.
The state trial court initially granted the district immunity from the lawsuit, but the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the decision. The court then determined that the district was 15 percent at fault and owed the parents $900,000 in damages.
‘Roles and Responsibilities’
Regardless of where the legal responsibility lies, school safety and law-enforcement officials alike believe that efforts to protect students outside school buildings must come from the entire community.
“It doesn’t make any sense to point fingers,” Mr. Modzeleski said. “This really has to be done collaboratively as a partnership. It’s really a call for communities and schools to work together on this thing.”
Many successful security programs have resulted from strong partnerships between police departments and school districts, said Curt Lavarello, the executive director of the Anthony, Fla.-based National Association of School Resource Officers.
“You want to be able to respond as a team and address issues as a team,” he said. “I think once you start doing that, you’re much better off in terms of being able to stop [violence] and prevent it from happening in the future.”
Most importantly, Mr. Modzeleski said, schools and communities must work together to comprehensively combat violence. And an important part of this partnership is defining clear roles.
“I think it is reasonable to expect that schools and police departments work together on a regular basis to figure out what the appropriate roles and responsibilities are,” he said.
Some districts have been doing that for decades.
Since 1958, for example, the Flint Community Schools in Michigan have partnered with city police in one of the nation’s first school resource officer programs. Now, each of the district’s five middle schools and five high schools houses a sworn city police officer. Additionally, the district employs 48 staff members to monitor student safety on and off school grounds throughout the district, including bus stops.
“We have been proactive for a long time,” said Larry Watkins, the director of school safety and security for the 20,000-student district.
In addition to establishing a police presence in the schools, the district uses metal detectors at building entrances, monitors activities in and around schools through surveillance cameras, and equips security officials with handheld computers for instant access to student information and schedules. For elementary students traveling to and from school, the district has a “safe passage” program. Before and after school hours, adult volunteers wearing neon orange clothing serve as eyes and ears for the students, Mr. Watkins said.
“We’ve had a couple of incidents where a couple of students have reported a stranger trying to get them into their vehicle,” Mr. Watkins said. “Because of ‘safe passage,’ we have been able to report that and prevent that from happening.”
Just this year, the district began a two-vehicle mobile-patrol unit to watch over bus stops and create a visible presence in the community.
“I think we have an obligation to make sure that our students are safe on their way to school and on their way home from school,” he said, adding that even if the school district is not legally responsible for areas off school grounds, it feels it must do as much as it can to safeguard students in those places.
Visible Police Presence
School partnerships with police and communities are an important key to student safety for the Chicago public schools.
“We try and do as much as we can to make sure that students get to and from school safely,” said Mike Vaughn, a spokesman for the 438,000-student district. “Unfortunately, there are some neighborhoods where safety is a concern and there is a gang problem that affects our students.”
Kathie Carothers, the school safety director for the Chicago police department’s Community Alternative Policing Strategy program, or CAPS, agrees.
Since 1993, CAPS, has recruited and directed “parent patrols” to monitor school perimeters before and after school hours.
In addition, a “walking school bus” program run by CAPS uses volunteers to safely guide elementary students through dangerous areas, usually within eight blocks of a school, on their routes home.
Still, problems occur.
On Sept. 16, a 15-year-old student was shot to death while waiting at a bus stop near Crane High School in the city. Gang members gunned down the teenager, who had no known gang affiliations, mistaking him for a member of a rival gang.
Following the incident, CAPS stepped up recruitment efforts for community members to patrol areas near the school. More than 3,000 volunteers are in place at most of the city’s elementary schools, Ms. Carothers said. She said they are just starting to put volunteers in place near city high schools.
Police officers also watch over students throughout the school day, said Mary Beth Godinez, a school liaison officer for Chicago’s 12th police district, which has jurisdiction over five high schools, including Crane. Two officers are assigned to each high school, and oftentimes a police car will stay outside of a school to establish a visible presence after dismissal, she said.
Two of the district’s officers also operate a police car designated specifically for monitoring safety near, but not on, school grounds. That program has worked successfully with the surrounding neighborhoods for years, Ms. Godinez said.
“So you know the kids, you know the teachers, you just know the community,” she said.
Lines of Liability
In Illinois, “district liability, responsibility, begins from the point of loading a bus in the morning ... until the point where the student disembarks or leaves the bus at the end of the school day wherever they are dropped off,” said Mark Wancket, the principal public information consultant for the Illinois state board of education.
While districts might seek additional insurance and coverage, he said, “by and large, that’s where district responsibility would be.”
But for many states and districts, the lines of liability remain unclear and untested.
Efforts to ensure student safety off school property could imply a sense of legal responsibility. But Mr. Stephens said that’s not the case.
“It would imply that [schools] have an interest in keeping it safe,” he said. “There’s a big difference between interest and responsibility.”
Staff Writer Darcia Harris Bowman contributed to this report.