Growing Liability Concerns in the Classroom

A changing climate in education

Growing Liability Concerns in the Classroom

Education is an ever-changing field as research around how children acquire and retain knowledge improves. Best practice encourages outdoor play, exploration, field trips and overnight camps. The aim is developing resiliency, critical thinking, and decision-making skills, all essential in the 21st century. Despite this knowledge, teachers are not able to create these learning experiences due to liability concerns. Children are no longer required to think critically about their choices and a culture of deflection and liability has grown, specifically targeting educators and schools. While the figures of successful school lawsuits may be low, the perceived risk for all educators is high.

Recent changes include no “piggybacks,” pyramids or many tag-type games after legal issues or threats thereof. Students lose the valuable experience of safely choosing an activity or learning to carefully climb or jump between rocks, because the choice has been removed out of fear. Field Trips are planned to make sure there is not too much time in an environment where options such as climbing trees or running through forests are available, with many schools cancelling overnight trips altogether over fears of liability should an emergency arise. At least one camp in BC has banned running all together while the students are on-site. All of the areas that are specifically targeted by these trips – exploration, motor skills and decision making become unable to develop. Through the combination of teachers lacking specific legal knowledge, pressure from districts to mitigate all risks, and parents deflecting responsibility from their children, valuable learning opportunities are being removed.

Children are naturally curious about the world, wanting to climb, explore and learn their own limitations. Traditionally fostered at home, external pressures have removed free play from most childrens’ day. Coupled with many of these activities no longer being allowed on the school playground: climbing structures, swings, and trees to climb – an effort to protect actually has children missing out. Having to mitigate a risk/reward situation on the playground or off-campus trip allows children to develop skills that cannot be replicated in any classroom. By learning to manage their bodies through spatial awareness students develop the core skills of thinking critically about a situation and learn to take responsibility for their choices. Recent changes have shifted families from saying to their child “why did you jump off that rock?” into saying to their teacher “Why did you let them get close to a rock?”

While shifting liability has become the status quo, not all changes have had negative implications. With an expanding body of concussion research, new policies and practices have been implemented, with the aim of protecting children. These changes may not have occurred without liability fears pushing them to the forefront. However, this unknown new field has caused mass fear amongst educators. Every day children will collide during play or scrape against an object. The child will pause, then resume their play. Despite not appearing hurt, common practice in many schools is to provide ice, and have parents immediately notified. This practice has developed out of fear. What if they have a head injury? What if they do not tell their parents they are not feeling well later? And above all: What if I am wrong? This has led to changes in playground protocols, such as students no longer being able to play tag games for fear that they will run into a structure or another student. Every teacher seeks to protect students in their care but it is incredibly challenging to anticipate all risks in a given situation, especially when dealing with a wave of young people who have not had to navigate challenging situations independently. Teachers care deeply for their students, and want to set them up for success, yet the concern always comes back to the same end: could I get sued for this?