You send your child off to school with the expectation that they will be safe for at least the six or seven hours they are away from you and in the care of their school. Despite the best intentions and precautions, however, children are often injured at school or during school-related activities.

For example, children may be injured while on a school visit to a museum or on the school bus on their way home. As well, in recent years there has been national focus on topics concerning school failure to prevent bullying  and to comply with applicable disability laws. 

As parents, your priority is getting to know your rights (and those of your child) so that you can defend your child’s interest and right in being educated in a safe school environment.

The rights you have as parents against a public school implicate the civil and criminal legal systems, but also are largely regulated by administrative law which governs the activities of governmental agencies, including public schools.

The requirements for filing a complaint against responsible parties, including the public school or public school district vary according to each state and may require a notice of claims or the defeat of immunity against suit before pursuing action.

Who Can Be Sued at a School or School District?

In a nutshell, just about any person or entity may be sued for the child’s injuries under a variety of legal theories. Principals, teachers, coaches, school bus drivers, guidance counselors, among others, all have been sued relating to some action that caused a child’s injuries.

The schools themselves can also be held vicariously liable for the actions of its employees. Determining whom to sue will ultimately depend on the particular facts of your case. If the offending action was done by a particular person or if it was due to a school policy, then you can decide what.

When Suing a School or School District, When Can You File Your Complaint?

Typically, you must exhaust an administrative complaint process with your school and school district before elevating your complaint to a court of law. The reasoning behind this is that parents are also interested in dealing directly with the accused without the need for more formal action and because many of the policies applying to the bullying, discipline, safety and other issues are developed at the school district level.

Note that administrative complaint filing deadlines vary according to your district so find that out as soon as possible after the incident in question. An investigation will follow after you file your complaint.

This can be fairly simple or involved depending on your school district, which means there might be interviews conducted and a review of all documentary support. Many administrative complaints will be positively resolved, but if not, you may then choose to pursue a formal lawsuit against the responsible parties in court.

What are Some Common Complaints Against Schools?

Suits against schools typically relate to claims against the school for failing to comply with disability laws, improperly applying discipline or failing to protect a child against bullying (both on the ground and in cyberspace).

  • Students with Disabilities: Pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), qualified children with a disability are entitled to “free and appropriate education.” 
    • Schools must evaluate if a child meets this classification. A child so identified is then entitled to receive from the school specialized services and instructions. You are entitled to file a complaint outlining your concerns against the school for failing to comply with the IDEA.
  • Bullying: Every child is entitled to be educated in an environment that is safe and free of harassment. The reality, however, is that bullying and other forms of harassment has become a common complaint against schools. 
    • Bullying is defined by individual schools, but generally points to intentional behavior that is meant to threaten, frighten or otherwise hurt another student. If your child has been the victim of bullying, you can complain to the school and the school district to take appropriate action. 
    • If the school fails to take satisfactory action, you can formally sue all parties responsible for bullying your child and for allowing the bullying to continue unabated.
  • School Discipline: Carrying out student discipline is a common school responsibility. School discipline will usually mean the child has been suspended (temporary separation from the school) or expelled (permanent separation from the school). 
    • If you feel your child has been improperly or unfairly disciplined, you may file a complaint against the school seeking to reverse and erase the disciplinary action.

Remember: The School Might Have Immunity Against Your Claims

As a governmental entity, public schools may be able to assert limited governmental immunity against your lawsuit. (With specific factual exceptions, private schools do not have the same immunity protections.)

What this usually means is that the facts of the case are very important in determining whether the school will be accorded this limitation to your lawsuit. Immunity varies by state, but facts establishing serious negligence or willful misconduct can be sufficient to defeat a claim of immunity.

Government entities are offered immunity to protect them from claims that occur during the natural course of events. These events would be situations that may occur due to the nature of the government entity’s line of work, like police officers.

While there are clearly instances where police officers cross the line of appropriate conduct, if they were not protected by government immunity then they could be sued for things like assault and battery for arresting a perpetrator.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Complaint Against My Public School?

If you have decided to pursue a complaint in court against a school or school district, you can benefit from the assistance of an attorney experienced with government issues. An attorney can help you identify all the potential claims you can assert, assess any immunity issues and decide how best to help you succeed in establishing your claims.