Inherent Level of Risk
All activities, regardless of the complexity or simplicity of the action, have an inherent level of risk. Variable factors such as cognitive ability and developmental maturity, skill level, previous experience of the students and teacher, weather conditions, facilities, and available equipment may all affect the level of risk of any activity.
Implementing Safe Instructional Practices in Schools
Well-planned physical activity programs reduce the frequency and severity of injuries. By implementing safe instructional practices, such as use of sequential teaching progressions, as well as the inclusion of developmentally appropriate activities in program preparations, planning and daily teaching, the teacher guards against foreseeable risks. A guideline alone does not eliminate risk regardless of how well it is written or how effectively it is implemented. Safety awareness, based on up-to-date information, common sense observation, the teacher’s ability to maintain a safe learning environment, action and foresight are keys to safe programming.
Communication of Expectations
Current policies regarding safety guidelines for physical activity in Alberta schools should be reviewed by boards of trustees, superintendents, district administrators, teachers, school staff and insurance companies. The protective value of safety policies is important to the development of safe programming. School authorities should ensure that they have clearly stated their expectations of superintendents and principals so that:
- Certified first aid and CPR support is accessible to all supervisory and teaching staff.
- Adequate and appropriate supervision is provided.
- Inspection procedures and schedules are developed for all physical activity facilities, including playing surfaces, playgrounds and major equipment.
- Schools have procedures in place to address emergency medical needs of students.
- The onus is on parents to provide designated school personnel with adequate information about the special medical needs of their children.
- Roles and responsibilities of school authorities, principals, teachers and support staff are well defined relative to providing a safe, clean and healthy physical environment for students.
- Safety policies are adopted relative to transportation, field trips, the various physical education dimensions, first aid qualifications of staff and administering of medications.
- A designate can be authorized to act on behalf of the principal.
Determining Legal Liability
Anyone who participates in physical activity is exposed to some risk of injury. From a legal liability perspective, in order for a person to be found negligent or legally liable for injury to another, the following elements must be present:
- A duty of care must be owed – in the case of teachers and students, this duty is presumed to exist because teachers are entrusted with the care of students.
- The duty must be breached – the duty of care owed by a teacher to a student is breached if the teacher does not provide a standard of care that a reasonable person would expect under the circumstances to protect a student from injury. Teachers are expected to use the same amount of caution that a careful or prudent parent would display in the care of their own children. This is an objective standard of care against which a teacher’s conduct will be measured.
- There must be damages/injury resulting from the breach of duty – a teacher will not be found negligent unless it is established that:
- There are damages which, in law, includes both physical injury and economic loss,
- The factual cause of the damages was failure on the part of the teacher to provide the standard of care that a reasonable person would expect under the circumstances, and
- The damages were reasonably foreseeable.
Avoiding Unreasonable Risk and Legal Liability
To ensure they are not exposing students to unreasonable risk of injury, and themselves to legal liability for negligence, teachers should be able to respond positively to the following questions. If teachers can say that they are taking the following precautions, they can better ensure they are providing the standard of care required to protect students from unreasonable risk of injury, and accordingly, it is unlikely they will be found negligent for failing to provide reasonable care.
- Is the activity suitable to the age, mental and physical condition of the participant(s)?
- Have the participants been progressively taught to perform the activity properly and to avoid the dangers inherent in the activity? Do daybook and lesson plans indicate this?
- Is the equipment adequate and suitably arranged?
- Is the activity being supervised properly for the inherent risk involved?
N.B. This information does not constitute legal advice and should be considered a mere guide. Please consult your organization's legal counsel for additional details and guidance.