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Fine print gets closer look

After parent complaints and questions from the Times, the school district may cut the liability waiver from its field trip form.

By TOM MARSHALL
Published September 17, 2006


BROOKSVILLE - Every parent has found them crumpled at the bottom of a bookbag or stuffed into a lunch box, amid half-eaten sandwiches and lost assignments: those important notes from teachers.

But parents may be surprised at the legal implications of one form from the Hernando County School Board.

The district's field trip permission slip asks families to release the district from "any claim for injury to our child resulting from simple negligence, and agree not to institute or be a party to any suit against the School Board arising out of ... " - well, you get the idea.

Officials said the language, which was suggested by the district's insurance provider, has been around for a while, perhaps since 2002 or earlier.

But following parent complaints and an inquiry by the St. Petersburg Times, the district said Friday that it was considering removing the liability waiver.

"We're going to look at the form," said finance director Deborah Bruggink, who oversees the district's risk management program. "I can understand why a parent might have a problem with that."

Margo Ellis said her 21-year-old children, Jeremy and Colleen - both of whom have cerebral palsy and attend Central High School - were barred from participating in their program's off-campus visits to area businesses unless she signed the liability release.

She didn't sign it.

"Accidents happen, that's true," Ellis said, describing herself as the sort of parent who wouldn't sue the district over something insignificant.

"But they are totally dependent," she said of her children, adding that she couldn't absolve the district of its responsibility for taking care of them. "Someone changes them. Someone has to wipe their mouth."

Ellis wasn't the only one to complain, Bruggink said. "There have been some parents every year that don't feel comfortable signing it. That's been an issue."

A form for every district

Other districts, including Hillsborough and Pinellas, don't require any liability release, asking parents simply to consent to their child's participation on specific trips. Both counties' forms specify the mode of transportation and mention the student code of conduct.

But 10 other counties participate in the Northeast Florida Educational Consortium, which provides Hernando's liability insurance and offers even more tangled, lawyered-up sample field trip forms.

It was that group that said Hernando's form needed to be "beefed up, improved, strengthened" back in 2002, Bruggink said.

The release, she added, "serves a purpose in one way: to put the parent on notice that there may be some exposure to risk because we can't control the setting as much as we can on campus."

For example, Bruggink said, students might have time on their own during a chaperoned trip to Walt Disney World. Or a child might trip over a crack in the sidewalk at the zoo.

"That may not be the fault of the teacher," she said, describing the heightened risks a parent must assume when children go on trips.

But the power of a legal release form in court is far from certain and varies from state to state, said Perry A. Zirkel, a national expert on education law and at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Some districts use the release to "give some notice to parents that 'Hey, if your kid is involved in extracurricular activities, there's some risk involved,' " Zirkel said, while other districts use the forms for "bluff value."

"You, the parent, think it's legally valid, even though it's not," he said. "It has the effect to deter you, as a parent, from suing."

In one precedent-setting case in the state of Washington, Wagenblast vs. Odessa School District, the high court ruled that forms releasing districts there from all potential negligence were invalid. Other states, including California, shield districts from liability for lawsuits related to field trips.

But in most states, the legal power of such releases is less clearly defined, Zirkel said.

Bruggink declined to speculate on the legal value of Hernando's waiver.

But she said parents should recognize that off-campus trips are inherently a bit riskier than a typical school day, and should make sure their health insurance policies are up to snuff or consider supplemental insurance.

"Sometimes things just happen to a child," she said. "Your health insurance has to work through some of that."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

[Last modified September 17, 2006, 07:07:41]


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