July is National School Safety Month

July is National School Safety Month

PURSUANT to Proclamation 115-A, series of 1966, July is National School Safety Month. The term “school safety” has evolved significantly over the years since Proclamation 115-A was proclaimed. It has expanded beyond physical safety from hazards, emergencies, and accidents to encompass a child-friendly or student-friendly learning environment in schools. During the pandemic, school safety has also meant surviving a disaster by adhering to the COVID-19 health protocols mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services. School safety also includes protections against gender-based sexual harassment under the Safe Spaces Act and extends to digital safety under various cybercrime laws and the Data Privacy Act.

From a legal perspective, school safety poses legal risks which, if not properly addressed by the school, can lead to claims for damages against educational institutions and even criminal negligence actions against its erring staff. In PSBA v. Court of Appeals, where a third-year student was stabbed on campus by a bystander, the Supreme Court held the school liable for damages for the student’s death for breach of its contractual obligation to maintain a safe campus. The Court held that when an academic institution accepts students for enrollment, a contract is created between them, resulting in bilateral obligations to which both parties must adhere. For its part, the school obligates itself to provide the student with an education presumptively sufficient to equip him with the necessary tools and skills to pursue higher education or a profession. According to the Court, educational institutions must fulfill the implied or “built-in” obligation to provide their students with an atmosphere that is conducive or helpful to the achievement of its primary enterprise of imparting knowledge. In stressing this contractual obligation, the Court explained that no student can absorb the complexities of physics or higher mathematics or explore the realm of arts and other sciences when bullets are flying through the air or grenades are exploding in the air or when there is a constant threat to life and limb looming around the school premises. Necessarily, the school must ensure that adequate measures are taken to maintain peace and order on the campus premises and prevent its collapse.

But schools are also not all-risk insurers against damages. To avoid liability, the school need only prove that it exercised due care in providing a safe learning environment for its students. In Saludaga v. FEU, where a second-year law student was shot by the university’s security guard, the Supreme Court held the school liable for damages, reiterating the inherent duty of schools under the ruling in PSBA v. CA. Here, the Court held that the school failed to exercise due care in selecting the security guards to be assigned by the contracted agency. There was no proof that the school had examined the statements, psychiatric test results, 201 files and other important documents listed in the contract with the agency. The Court explained that complete reliance on the security agency constitutes negligence on the part of the respondents. An educational institution cannot be allowed to completely transfer or relinquish security matters in its premises to the security agency it has hired. If we were to do so, we would be neglecting our inherent obligation to ensure a safe learning environment for our students.

In St. Luke’s College v. Spouses Perez, where students assigned to a municipal clinic for a four-week internship died in a fire, the court also found the college liable for damages. The cause of the fire was later determined to be the clinic’s failure to comply with fire and building codes. However, the court found that the college had failed to show that it had exercised due care when it failed to inspect the clinic for compliance with statutory safety requirements. The court found that it was the college’s duty to ensure that the clinic was conducive to learning, that there were no constant threats to life and limb, and that peace and order were maintained. After all, even though they were not on the main campus of St. Luke’s, the students were still under the same protective and supervisory guardianship of the college as those assigned to the main campus.

The main conclusion from the prevailing case law on this issue is that the education contract necessarily includes the duty of schools to provide a safe learning environment, and that failure to do so is considered a breach of law. A school can be held liable for the negligence of its employees. While the exercise of due diligence by the school is an available defense, affirmative actions taken by the school to ensure the safety of students must be proven by evidence.

The author regularly holds The Legal Mind Executive Sessions for teachers and school administrators. Email [email protected].