Field Trip and Travel Liability: Have You Limited Yours?

A large part of student education occurs away from campus. NAIS schools arrange many unique learning opportunities for their students on both day trips and extended travel. However, providing these experiences often exposes the school to some liability. This article is designed to help your school build some of the tools useful to avoiding liability on these learning experiences. NAIS encourages schools to work with their attorneys on a thorough review of field trip and travel policies, procedures, and documentation. Travel in today’s world, whether domestic or international, introduces new challenges that Americans have never concerned themselves with before.

Student Travel Policy

The easiest approach to addressing liability is to design specific policies that address some areas of concern. As an initial matter, the travel policies should explain that trips away from campus usually have an educational purpose and should be given the same respect and consideration as any educational experience. These policies make clear that the school approaches these endeavors seriously and helps ensure that those on the trips will do the same.

School policies also help school staff, students, and parents understand what behavior is expected during trips when facing particular situations. Therefore, it is important to impart the standard of expected behavior for school trips. This information should be in the student and employee handbooks, as well as any other place standard policies are noted. Through these policies, it is important to make clear to students and their families that such trips are a privilege, not a right. This point reserves the right of the school not to include those students who might be a problem during a trip. To use this tool effectively, note the policy in the school handbook and give examples of behavior that will lead to exclusions from field trips. This step limits accusations of random punishment and prepares students and their families in the event that they are excluded from an outing. Most importantly, the school should take care to uniformly enforce this policy. Many schools have taken the step of having students sign either a document acknowledging the school's expectations laid out in the handbook or other specific behavior related policies.

Specific Areas to Address

Schools should address any number of areas when reviewing their field trip and general travel policies and procedures. The most important areas to address are basic safety considerations, disciplinary issues, and releases. Discipline policies and procedures educate the students, families, and staff about consequences and protocol for misbehavior. Standardizing the approach to the problems is a pre-emptive strike against later complaints. When schools are challenged on discipline related issues the challenges usually related to either the particular facts of the situation, or whether the school followed its own policies and procedures. Both the fact gathering and reviewing and the processes should be very clear from the school materials. Releases are unlikely to provide schools with complete liability protection in the event of an incident. However, a complete release is more likely to provide at least some coverage, as well as bring the school’s attention to any potential risk factors involved with a particular outing.

Basic Safety

Schools should review how field trips and general student travel are conducted. There should be a process for reviewing the proposed trip and the details of each outing. Obviously, different outings will raise different concerns. Regardless of the contents of the release, it is important to take into account insurance issued regarding the activities that will take place. Are the students going on a ropes course? Is a teacher driving them to the destination in a van? The entire trip, from beginning to end, needs to be reviewed. This rule remains true even if the trip takes place every year. Although the trip may remain the same, the risks involved with the trip may not.

Discipline Issues

Students and faculty on these trips are better served by knowing exactly what the disciplinary procedures and consequences will be before they leave campus. Issues readily handled in the school are rarely easily addressed elsewhere. A specific procedure on how these issues are handled should be set and carefully followed.

Teachers need to be assured that their authority afield is that much more pronounced, and students need to have boundaries that are well-defined. Each school should design its own policy, as schools are somewhat different in approach and consequences to these situations.

These procedures should be drafted in light of all of the types of trips offered by the school, including those where the school organizes a trip abroad. Trips abroad create unique disciplinary situations, particularly those involving alcohol and other substances that may be lawfully obtained by students abroad. As with domestic travel, students and parents who understand the rules and acknowledge these rules in writing are less likely to challenge the enforcement of those rules at a later date. Additionally, if the enforcement of these rules is challenged by the student or parents, written acknowledgement by both ensures that their argument is undermined. Other liability issues involving over- night trips are addressed below.

Releases

All schools should obtain releases from parents. However, releases should contain more than a basic disclaimer of liability and a parent’s signature. The release also needs to give the parent enough information to knowingly sign the release. Without such knowledge, the release may be found meaningless by a court. Accordingly, the release should include at least the following items:

  • Name of parents and student
  • Trip Details
    • Objective of trip: why is this trip being taken?
    • Itinerary: what are the exact details?
    • Student activities: what will the students be doing, particularly if they will be required to participate in physically demanding or somewhat dangerous events
    • Equipment and supplies: anything the students should bring with them
  • Transportation plan: all of the details. When, where, and how
  • Costs and expenses anticipated: mandatory costs and a notation of any discretionary money that may be needed by the student. (e.g.: if time will be provided for students to shop at a gift store, etc.)
  • Medical authorization: this information should include a physician’s name and number, as well as an emergency number for either or both parents, and a release for the overseeing adult on the trip to make at least initial medical decision on behalf of the parents until the parents or other emergency contact can be reached.
  • Agreement by both the parent and the child that the school policies and any additional rules will be followed
  • Hold harmless clause: the following is sample language. Schools should consult counsel to assure that the language covers any peculiarities in state law:
    • [parent’s name] agrees to release and hold harmless [school name, administrators, and chaperones] from any and all liability , loss, damages, claims, or actions for bodily injury and / or property damage arising out of participation in this trip, in accordance with current state and federal law.

The above list is not exclusive; every school should also consider adding other sections pertinent to the particular school as appropriate. However, just having the release is not enough. Before even distributing the release, an appointed person within the administration should review the contents for any safety issues. Prior to the trip, copies should be made of the signed batch of releases, and the supervising teacher should have a complete set on the trip. Having this information on hand will save time in the event of an emergency. Bear in mind that the release does not mean that the school does not need to take other precautionary steps. Schools should understand that many courts frown on fully enforcing such releases, particularly if there is a very serious injury or death that may have been avoidable or was otherwise triggered by the negligence of the school or others.

Modern Day Safety Concerns

In light of the 9/11 tragedies and recent natural disasters, schools must have emergency plans in place in the event that another terrorist attack or other emergency arises. These emergency procedures and policies should apply to both domestic and international trips. Consider the following suggestions:

  • If the school trip is abroad, the chaperones should have enough credit or access to funds to afford the group another several nights in a hotel in case the borders of either the country being visited or the United States close.
  • Each student should have extra money or a credit card for emergency use.
  • At least one school adult on the trip should have a cell phone with adequate service coverage, including international coverage if appropriate.
  • Every person on the trip should have the cell phone number and an emergency call-in number so that everyone can be accounted for even if the group gets separated.
  • Increase the amount and the consistency with which chaperones stay in touch with the school. Most schools have this “check-in” provision; it should be reviewed and updated as necessary.

Schools should spend significant time reviewing all of these suggestions and thinking of any other ways that such safety concerns can be addressed. Particularly with overnight or international trips, emergency procedures should be reviewed and acknowledged in writing by parents, students, and chaperones alike before the trip begins. It is vital that students understand the importance of acting responsibly in the case of an emergency.

Travel Abroad and Overnight Trips

Taking students on over-night trips, either domestic or international, raises a whole new set of issues not easily addressed with regular field trip policies. Terrorist attacks have made this statement truer than ever before. As an initial step, schools should make sure that their insurance coverage is adequate for the risks they are adopting by having the trip. If the insurance coverage is questionable, and the school does not want to spend the time or resources to make sure that the insurance approaches the right levels, schools should investigate programs that sponsor and organize trips for schools that will take on these insurance logistics. These programs often take on some or most of the liability involved in such excursions.

Beyond raising insurance or passing on the general liability, there are some things that schools can do to limit liability in this area. In addition to all of the information provided above, schools need to:

  • Check with the State Department to determine whether there has been a travel advisory posted for the school trip destination. The State Department does not issue such advisories lightly, and schools should be reluctant to allow a trip to a country about which the State Department has safety concerns. Schools should be aware that at the time of the writing of this article, there is a general travel advisory for all Americans.
  • Draft a policy about drug and alcohol use for traveling students. This policy is particularly imperative for trips to countries that lawfully allow young adults to drink or do drugs. This policy should be clear, as should the consequences of violating the policy. This policy should be in the student handbook, as well as noted on the release form itself.
  • Have the adequate number of chaperones on the trip. How many chaperones do you have per student, and is that adequate now? Think about having students assigned to each chaperone. The chaperones should be named on the liability release, and should be specifically covered by the school insurance as well as their own.
  • Closely consider the group’s transportation. Will there be a bus provided, or will the chaperone be driving a van? Is the chaperone qualified to drive the vehicle under these circumstances? (i.e., will the driving be on mountain roads in Italy, during rush hour in Manhattan, or across the plain states?) Does the school insurance cover the chaperone driving the students? Does the chaperone’s insurance cover driving the students? Particularly before leaving the country, the chaperone should know how much insurance will be needed to rent a vehicle, as well as the details of pre-existing policy coverage.

Practical use of this knowledge not only protects the chaperone, but it protects the school. As with one day trips, parents should know all of the details of the students’ transportation on overnight and abroad journeys as well. Most parents would agree that they would rather spend extra money to ensure safe transportation for their children.

  • Insurance. When the trip is going abroad insurance considerations are paramount.
    • Insurance for transportation of students: see discussion above
    • Travel insurance: the school should have chaperones and the parents of traveling students take out travel insurance.
    • Health insurance: Many health insurances that cover individuals in the United States do not provide much, if any, coverage abroad. Most insurance companies have a rider that can be taken out for limited periods of time.

Take Time-Saving Steps Now

No policy, set of procedures, or extreme doggedness will protect your school from all liability likely to arise from a student outing. However, managing your school’s risk appropriately will help limit exposure through proper preparation. Creating and implementing school policies and procedures, and obtaining thorough releases from parents will help your school limit your liability. You should work with your school’s counsel to identify more ways to approach this issue, as well as specific language for our school’s policies and release. Preparing now for later events will save a lot of time, effort, and frustration.

N.B. This article is intended to provide educational information of a general nature. It is not intended as, and should not be viewed to be legal advice with respect to any particular situation. Schools are encouraged to seek counsel for fact specific advice.