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Proving Negligent School Supervision in Washington State

Posted by attorney Jeffery Jacobs

School districts can be held liable for injuries sustained by a student as a result of negligent supervision or failure to supervise student activities. Furthermore, virtually all courts hold that school personnel have a duty to exercise supervision over students during school hours on school grounds. The following discussion focuses on case law, outcomes, and the rationale behind the duty of non-negligent school supervision of students in Washington State:

“A school district owes a duty to its students to employ reasonable care and to anticipate reasonably foreseeable dangers so as to take precautions for protecting children in its custody from such dangers." Wagenblast v. Odessa Sch. Dist., 110 Wn.2d 845, 856, 758 P.2d 968, 973 (1988). Specifically, “[a] school district may be liable for injuries sustained as a result of negligent supervision or failure to supervise activities of its students"; and, furthermore, a “student may sue the school district for injuries resulting from its failure to protect the child." Carabba v. Anacortes Sch. Dist., 72 Wn.2d 939, 955, 435 P.2d 936, 946 (1967), citing Tardiff v. Shoreline Sch. Dist., 68 Wn.2d 164, 170, 411 P.2d 889, 893 (1966).

One policy for the duty of non-negligent supervision imposed upon the school district is that when a student attends school the protective custody of teachers is substituted for that of the parent. McLeod v. Grant County Sch. Dist., 42. Wn.2d 316, 319, 255 P.2d 360, 362 (1953), see also Rodriguez v. Seattle Sch. Dist., 66 Wn.2d 51, 52, 401 P.2d 326, 327 (1965); Briscoe v. Grays Harbor Sch. Dist., 32 Wn.2d 353, 361, 201 P.2d 697, 701 (1949). In Briscoe, a case in which an 11-year-old student sustained injuries in an unsupervised game of football during recess, the court held that the jury must decide the issues of whether: (1) the student was contributorily negligent; (2) the school district was negligent in failing to provide supervision; and (3) such negligence was the proximate cause of the student’s injuries so as to render the school district liable. Id. at 362, 201 P.2d at 701. The court concluded that the extent of the duty imposed on a school district in relation to its supervision of students within its custody is that “it must exercise such care as an ordinarily reasonable and prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances." Id.

In fact, “[a]lthough the standard is articulated variously as a duty of reasonable care, prudent care, ordinary care, or the care a parent of reasonable prudence would exercise under similar circumstances, virtually all courts that have considered the issue have concluded that school personnel have a duty to exercise supervision over students during school hours on school grounds." Allan E. Korpela, Annotation, Tort Liability of Public Schools and Institutions of Higher Learning for Injuries Resulting from Lack or Insufficiency of Supervision, 38 A.L.R.3d 830, 841-842 (1971 & Supp. 2007) (emphasis added).

In a case cited therein involving injuries sustained by a child on a school playground during recess, the Washington Supreme Court held that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to sustain a jury’s finding of negligent supervision of the playground by the supervising school officials present that day. Bruenn v. N. Yakima Sch. Dist., 101 Wn. 374, 172 P. 569 (1918). In Bruenn, the Washington Supreme Court made the following statement in affirming the finding of negligent supervision:

If, as accepted by the jury, the accident occurred in the manner and at the time testified to by the little boy, and at the time, as contended by appellant, a teacher was present, then the jury might have found that the supervision was inadequate or negligent, in permitting the boys to take the teeter board from its own upright and use it in connection with the swing.If the teacher knew it, it was negligence to permit it; and, if she did not know it, it was negligence not to have observed it.

Id. at 377, 172 P. at 571 (emphasis added).


This legal brief is intended to provide general information only. It is not intended to form, nor does it create, an attorney client relationship. Please consult with an attorney to determine whether the authorities cited are current and apply in your particular factual circumstances.

© 2010 Jeffery M. Jacobs, Attorney at Law

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