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What Constitutes Teacher Negligence?

By L.R. Ferguson
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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In the realm of education, the safety and well-being of students are paramount. Teacher negligence, a serious concern, arises when educators fail to fulfill their duty of care. According to a study by the Journal of Education, incidents of teacher-related negligence have significant implications for both students and schools. The legal threshold for teacher negligence is met when there is a clear breach of duty that leads to student harm. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that during the 2017-2018 school year, about 962,300 violent incidents took place in U.S. public schools, some of which may be attributed to lapses in supervision or care. Determining liability hinges on proving that a teacher's inaction or inappropriate action directly resulted in injury or harm to a student.

Teaching holds a significant amount of liability among school administrators and faculty members. Teachers are expected to provide not only education but also a safe and caring environment for the students they supervise. Thus, when a child is injured while in the care of a teacher, the teacher can be held responsible for any physical or emotional trauma that happens as a result. Teacher negligence can occur in many forms, such as when a teacher overlooks or fails to notice bullying, fighting or assault. Incidents of negligence tend to occur more frequently when a teacher has numerous students under his or her supervision and is unable to provide complete attention to every chid.

If a teacher is accused of negligence, the charges usually are made under a negligence tort law, which holds an individual liable for his or her actions if it causes harm to another person. First, the court generally must determine that, as an educator and caretaker, the teacher is responsible for caring for the student and is obligated to protect him or her from harm. Then the court will have to examine the alleged harm to determine whether the injury was foreseeable, meaning that it was a harm that a teacher should have expected and prevented. To establish whether the harm was foreseeable, factors such as the age of the student, the experience of the teacher and the risk of the situation are thoroughly examined.

The second factor that constitutes teacher negligence is failure of care by the teacher. In cases brought to trial, the court must decide whether the teacher acted negligently in failing to protect the injured student. A common example of this is if a teacher fails to discipline ongoing bullying of a student, which results in physical or emotional harm to the student. This situation would consider the teacher to have breached his or her duty as a caregiver because he or she did not prevent the bullying from occurring and thus did not protect the student. To establish whether negligence is evident, the court usually will put the case into perspective by comparing the teacher’s conduct to the behavior that a “reasonable” teacher would exhibit in a similar situation.

The third factor of teacher negligence is the actual link between the harm suffered by the student and the negligence of the teacher. In order for this to be determined, there must be a causal connection between the teacher’s failed duties and the resulting harm. Foreseeable harm is also reexamined at this stage to determine whether injury would have been prevented if the teacher could have reasonably predicted that it would happen.

The final component of teacher negligence is actual harm or injury. Unless real harm or injury to the student — whether it is physical, mental or emotional — can be proven, the case against a teacher for negligence will not stand. This is the last but most crucial deciding factor in cases of teacher negligence. Still, the teacher will be held liable for harm only if all four factors of negligence are found to be present in the case.

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Discussion Comments
By anon999592 — On Feb 08, 2018

My son was hurt two weeks ago because a football coach was the substitute teacher in his ROTC class. The football coach had the kids out playing Football, and Smear The Queer, while in class, with students who are not high school football players, and without any protective gear whatsoever.

The school has been circling their wagons ever since I found out, after my son got home from school. My son informed three teachers that he was hurt, and not one of the teachers bothered to send my son to the school nurse, nor did they notify me or my husband. My son has bruised ribs because of this activity while at school, and I will not stop until that teacher is fired and facing the criminal charges he should be facing.

By Fa5t3r — On Dec 20, 2013

@Ana1234 - As someone who has done some teaching and who has family members working in education it just sickens me that anyone can take the responsibility of being a teacher so lightly.

I mean, children are precious. They are vulnerable human beings placed in your charge. How can anyone abuse that trust? Being negligent because you are an idiot or just shouldn't be a teacher is one thing (and still pretty bad) but some of the things that go on in schools with full knowledge of the teachers are just beyond belief.

By Ana1234 — On Dec 19, 2013

@browncoat - I don't know, it depends on the school and the teacher and the parents. I mean if you look at some of the teacher negligence cases these days it seems like it needs to get pretty bad, verging on horrific before anyone will do anything.

Look at all the cases where kids have been bullied to the point where they have committed suicide, or where girls have been raped by jocks who were then supported by the school administration. I mean, I think that goes well beyond simple negligence and into the realm of abuse, but the question is why it managed to get that far in the first place.

By browncoat — On Dec 18, 2013

It's funny to look back and realize that some of what I experienced at school might be considered negligence today. I definitely witnessed a lot of bullying that was essentially condoned by the teachers because they didn't want to get involved in student lives outside the classroom.

I can also remember a teacher who just didn't really care at all about our grades and would give us assignments that had nothing to do with the final exam (and didn't have any educational merit).

I think some of these teachers would be sued for negligence these days.

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