Schools should not let liability concerns keep them from promoting physical activity

Kids spend many of their waking hours at school. This puts schools in a unique position to help promote physical activity and healthy habits among children. However, many schools are deterred by fears of increased risk of legal liability for personal injuries.

A new article in the American Journal of Public Health outlines three school-based strategies for promoting physical activity—Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs, joint use agreements, and playground enhancement— and describes how schools can substantially minimize their liability risk by engaging in an number of different approaches that include creating and maintaining safe facilities, having adequate insurance, and partnering with other organizations to share liability risk. In some cases schools are also protected under governmental immunity, further lowering their liability risk.

Initiatives such as SRTS, which encourages walking and biking to school; joint use (or shared use) agreements, which make school playground and recreational facilities publicly available during non-school hours; and the use of design strategies and equipment to provide more engaging school playgrounds have all been shown to help increase levels of student physical activity. Many schools fail to permit or actively promote physical activity approaches like these because of concern over increased exposure to lawsuits for personal injuries.

“Schools have a lot of anxiety about liability risk because they worry about effects on their already constrained budgets — that’s a really significant area of concern,” said Sara Zimmerman, senior staff attorney at ChangeLab Solutions and lead author of the article. “They also genuinely are concerned about kids’ well-being — they don’t want kids to get injured. For them, that sense of ‘maybe this is dangerous’ when it comes to potentially hurting kids and affecting their overall budget creates a big barrier.”

There are a number of steps schools can take to minimize their liability. School administrators can make sure they have adequate insurance and can explore entering into agreements where a partnering group agrees to take on some of the liability risk. Additionally, though it varies by state, schools are afforded a certain amount of governmental immunity, which precludes a plaintiff from recovering even if negligence is shown.

Zimmerman and her colleagues suggest that the best way for schools to decrease their liability risks is to make sure they are being thoughtful and responsible in how they set up and run physical activity programs. Schools should anticipate potential problems and take reasonable steps to avoid them, not just as they run programs, but also as they set up playgrounds and other school recreational facilities in good, safe, responsible ways.

“The best approach for schools is to look at whether the benefits of what they’re doing outweigh the risk,” said Zimmerman. “This is how we all approach decisions in life, consciously or not, and healthy physical activity programs should be approached in the same way. Will this program help kids grow and thrive? Will that make enough of a difference that we should accept the risk while, of course, minimizing it as best we can?”

The development of this article was funded by the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), which is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWFJ) funded project at ChangeLab Solutions. RWJF is part of the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR). NCCOR contributor Matthew Trowbridge of the University of Virginia School of Medicine is also an author of the article. To learn more about NCCOR and its efforts to reduce childhood obesity please visit, www.nccor.org.

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