What is Negligent Supervision?

Learn about the legal obligation that schools and day care facilities have to provide adequate supervision to kids.

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When children walk out the door each morning to go to school, they will encounter a wide range of new situations and experiences -- everything from participating in new activities on school grounds to visiting new destinations while on field trips. Parents always hope that their children will exercise common sense and make wise decisions during the school day, but parents also know this does not always happen.

During a typical school week, children often spend more time at school during the day than they do with parents in the evenings. Since parents cannot be with their children every hour of every day, parents must rely on the experience and wisdom of others who have been entrusted with their child's care. Parents have the right to expect that their children will be adequately supervised while at school or day care facilities. Translated in a different way: schools and day care facilities have a legal obligation to make all reasonable efforts to keep children safe. But what if a child is injured in this kind of situation? How is fault for an injury established? Read on to learn more.

What is Adequate Supervision?

The definition of “adequate” supervision depends upon the circumstances. The type and level of supervision that teachers or administrative personnel might need to exercise over one student doesn’t necessarily apply to the next student. Even with a single group of children the level of supervision called for may vary throughout the week, or even a single school day. Bottom line: There is no hard-and-fast rule for what amounts to "adequate supervision" in the eyes of the law. It is a very fluid and situation-specific concept, but there are a few common factors that influence it.

Factors That Determine Adequate Supervision

The level of supervision required depends on the age of the child as well as the activity in which the child is engaged. A number of factors can be involved in determining what level of supervision is required in any given situation:

  • age of the child;
  • experience level of the child;
  • nature of the activity; and
  • factors outside the supervisor’s control.

Let's look at how these factors might apply to a given situation:

Age: A kindergarten student using scissors for an art project may require a higher degree of supervision than a middle school student.

Experience Level: A boy who has played tackle football for several years probably does not need the same level of supervision as one who is playing for the first time.

Nature of the Activity: Children reading books in a classroom may not require the same level of supervision as a group of students playing dodge ball during P.E. class.

Outside Factors: A classroom is a relatively controlled environment. However, the degrees to which outside factors are beyond the supervisor’s control vary with the environment. For example, a playground is a much more dynamic environment than the typical classroom, and a field trip may present even more threats to a child’s well-being than a playground. The levels of supervision required for each situation may vary accordingly.

It is important to note that the duty of adequate supervision doesn’t mean merely taking reasonable steps to ensure a child’s safety during a risky activity, such as sports or field trips. Schools and day care facilities also have the duty to adequately supervise the environments surrounding the children and to minimize threats to the safety and well-being of the children from any number of sources.

For example, schools and day care facilities generally have a duty to protect children from:

  • harm from fellow students, such as bullying or physical assault, and
  • harm from nearby adults, such as abuse and abduction.

So, schools and day care facilities have the duty to constantly monitor a child’s environment for potential threats and dangers. But the duty of adequate supervision doesn’t end with just monitoring or observing a situation. The duty also means taking all appropriate steps to eliminate any threats or dangers. Depending on the situation, the action required might be as simple as taking a ball out of a child’s hands. However, in a more extreme situation, fulfilling that duty might mean calling the police.

All of this information leads us back to the original question: What is Negligent Supervision? Simply, it is a failure to provide adequate supervision under the circumstances. The level of adequate supervision is determined by a host of different variables, as we’ve discussed above. If a school district or day care facility has failed to provide adequate supervision in a given situation, and a child suffers harm because of it, then the school district or day care facility can and should be on the legal hook for that harm.

Learn more about Negligence and Liability for Injury.

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