It’s time to say goodbye to the Class of 2009! For better or worse, school districts all over the state have managed to stick it out with their seniors, and have hopefully made it through unscathed. Well, almost. For those school districts adventurous enough to permit the words “senior trip” to be uttered on campus, adventures with the Class of 2009 aren’t quite over yet! Here are a few things school districts may want to consider before sending those wide-eyed seniors out into the early summer air.
Whose Trip is it Anyway?
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of preparing for senior trips, school districts must first answer the all-important question, “Is this trip school-sponsored?” To decide the answer, consider the following:
- Have students used class time for fundraising?
- Is the school district providing an employee whose expenses are paid by the school as a sponsor for the senior trip?
- Will the employee sponsor attend the trip as a chaperone?
- Does the majority of work conducted by the senior class focus on planning and fundraising for the senior trip?
- Are senior trip funds stored in a school district account?
- Has the trip been scheduled as the “School District Senior Trip,” and have tickets, hotel rooms, or other travel arrangements been planned under this name?
- Have school district supplies and equipment been used to promote the senior trip? (for example, the copy machine, telephones and computers, personnel, etc.)
The more times a school district answers “yes” to the above questions, the more likely it is that the district’s senior trip will be construed as “school-sponsored.” And, the more likely a trip is to be considered school-sponsored, the more responsibility school districts will have to take for the students who participate. However, don’t confuse “responsibility” with “liability.” The school district simply cannot and will not be liable for injury to students or property damage that students may cause. School district officials should make sure that is communicated loud and clear every chance they get.
Non-School Sponsored Trips
If the answer is “yes” to some small number of the above questions, but the school district wants to avoid classifying a senior trip as school-sponsored, then it would be a good idea to ensure that the word gets out. Now. For instance, a district may want to consider sending letters to parents clarifying that the senior trip is not school-sponsored or school-sanctioned, and the district will assume no liability for any injury or loss that may occur in connection with the trip. If needed, it may also be appropriate to inform parents that any information parents may have received from their children regarding a senior trip was not given to them by the school district. If school district staff members are helping to organize the trip, then beware! Extra precautions may be needed to clarify that staff members are acting in their personal capacity and are not representing the school district in matters relating to the senior trip.
In addition to some sort of communication with parents, it’s likely to be in the district’s best interest to take as many steps as possible to remove the school from the senior trip process. This may include preventing announcements or other activities regarding the senior trip from taking place during the school day, and avoiding references to the trip as the “[insert school name here] Senior Trip.” These recommendations may not always keep a trip from being classified as a school-sponsored event, but may help reduce the district’s chances of the trip’s being considered a school district activity.
Perhaps the best way to avoid any confusion about whether or not the trip is school-sponsored is to make the students take the trip after they have graduated—in June for instance. Once they have graduated, they are not “students” anymore; they are just 17 and 18 and 19 year olds on a trip with their friends and any family who care to attend.
If the Class of 2009 Senior Trip is likely to be considered school-sponsored, there may be some potential liability issues to consider. In Texas, school districts are liable under tort law only for injuries arising out of the negligent use or operation of a motor vehicle by a district employee acting within the course and scope of employment. Therefore, school districts are shielded from liability for all other personal injury clams by students that may be caused by the negligence of the school district or agents acting on the district’s behalf or that are caused by the students themselves. However, if the senior trip will take a school district’s students out of state or out of the country, this immunity may not apply, and the school district could potentially be liable for any injury or loss that occurs to students or others, especially residents of the state or country where the students are visiting, during the course of that trip.
So what can the district do? One method that may be useful in an attempt to shield the school district from liability would be to create a release of liability and choice of venue document that all students/parents must sign before students will be allowed to participate in the senior trip. In addition to expressly releasing the school district from liability, the document would designate Texas law and Texas courts for any lawsuits that may arise. However, school districts should be aware that even with this document, the district is far from bulletproof. Release from liability and choice of law provisions will not protect the district from the claims that citizens of other states or countries may make against the district or its students, and there is still a possibility that even with such an agreement, the liability release and choice of law provisions could be set aside by a court as being inconsistent with public policy.
In addition to a release of liability and choice of law document, school districts may also want to consider using the following documents to help maintain order and reduce the risks of liability while on a senior class trip:
- Student Trip Agreement
- This handy little document may be useful for setting forth the terms and conditions of the senior trip, and may include the rules that students must adhere to (i.e., the Student Code of Conduct), penalties for noncompliance with student trip rules, a list of chaperones, and any other rules and disclaimers that the school district may feel necessary to have in written form before departing for the trip.
- Chaperone Agreement
- This agreement would set forth similar terms to the Student Trip Agreement, but for trip chaperones. The school district may consider addressing expectations of chaperone conduct, restrictions on use of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, etc., penalties for noncompliance with any of the conditions, and chaperone responsibility for any additional costs arising out of the trip.
- Medical Consent Form
- A medical consent form may be useful for the purpose of authorizing the school district to consent to emergency medical treatment for any injury or illness that may occur on the trip, if the injured party is unable to provide his or her own consent. It might also be wise to clarify who will be responsible for payment of the costs associated with any medical treatment.
Again, use of these documents will not eliminate all risks of liability that the school district may face during a school-sponsored senior trip. The best method of preventing legal liability would be to refuse to sponsor the trips at all. School districts should consult with their local counsel before embarking on any senior trip, in order to ensure that all the proper steps will be taken to help minimize the district’s risks of liability.
Construction Boot Camp II
What to Expect from Your Architect, Contractor & Construction Manager
May 5, 2009 - Austin, TX
For more information and to register online, click here.
TASPA Half-Day Law Conference
July 24, 2009
To register online, click here.
The 9th Annual
Schwartz & Eichelbaum and Equity Center
Seminar on School Finance and Legal Issues
July 30-31, 2009
For more information and to register online, click here.