With a stream of reports in the media about shootings, sexual abuse, bullying, and other safety issues in our schools, it’s no surprise that our educational institutions are more vulnerable to lawsuits than ever. Resolution of legal battles involving student-injury lawsuits often depend on the opinion of an experienced education expert witness. They can offer insight into whether a school’s actions were reasonable and can direct toward key information during discovery.
The education expert witness brings a dimension of experience that can be valuable to a plaintiff or defense attorney. Having worked in an educational setting, the education expert witness understands the culture of schools and how they function. He or she also understands the complexities of implementing regulations and disciplinary plans; student supervision and safety; staff hiring, supervision, and retention; and special education requirements. If a case goes to trial, the expert’s role is to educate the jury or the judge about case-relevant education administration issues and the professional standard of care, and to render an opinion as to whether the school met or breached the standard.
Schools have a responsibility to protect students from harm. The same duty falls on other agencies responsible for the supervision of students, such as daycare centers, summer camps, and after-school programs. As protectors, school employees must act on behalf of the school in a way that is reasonably calculated to maintain children’s health, safety, and well-being. The key word here is reasonable in the totality of a situation. When a child is injured or killed, an analysis and assessment of how the school acted to protect the student and whether its actions were reasonable can be challenging. However, these activities are imperative for assessing school liability.
Contacting an education administration expert witness is key to effective discovery from the beginning. Through a review and analysis of records, statements, and other evidence, the expert can develop a full picture of the context in which an injury occurred. Consequently, this enables him or her to render an opinion on proximate cause and the school’s liability.
Role of the expert:
As an education administration expert witness, I have worked with hundreds of attorneys on cases involving student injury and death. I start by addressing the issues of student supervision. This includes a review and analysis of the school’s policies regarding student and staff supervision.
Next, I review the facts of the incident itself and consider whether the school met both the professional standard of care and its own standards in supervising the student. Did the school act reasonably under the circumstances, and did any failures on its part contribute to the injury or death? In many situations, accidents cannot be foreseen, even when the school acted reasonably and within professional standards of care. Other times, I have found that a school, through its administration and/or other staff, acted with deliberate indifference or failed to meet the minimal professional standard of care — placing a student in harm’s way.
Regardless of whether I am engaged by an attorney for the plaintiff or defendant, my ability to render an impartial opinion depends on access to all appropriate documentation. This will help me determine whether a school bears liability for an injury or if the incident resulted from factors beyond its control or responsibility. In one case, two students were fighting on a stairway when one student’s arm went through a plate-glass window — severely and permanently injuring the student.
The attorney told me that she had never thought of asking for the items that I had listed for discovery. Which were the teacher handbook, student handbook, personnel records of certain teachers, and student supervisory plan for the school. I looked for directives, policies, or procedures focused on student supervision around the time of the incident. The student supervisory plan would shed light on expectations of teachers. With those two documents, I compared the level of supervision at the time of the accident with the school’s policy. As it turned out, the actual supervision differed from the school’s policy. I then looked at whether the school’s failure to implement its own policy was a proximate cause of the injury.
What should a lawyer look for in an education administration expert? The ideal candidate is someone with hands-on experience, preferably both as a teacher and an administrator. The expert should have experience supervising other teachers. They should also have a doctorate in educational administration, which provides training in a wide range of educational management issues. Attorneys should try to engage someone with a variety of experiences in the education field. In particular, those with experience as a school administrator. If the expert’s experience is solely in administration or teaching, it limits the person’s ability to review and analyze a claim from different points of view. Therefore, a multidimensional focus enables the expert to determine the merits of filing a lawsuit or the strength of a defense.
About The Author
EXPERT WITNESS E-000670
This article was authored by an expert who is an adjunct university professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Special Education. His professional experience includes serving as a school superintendent, principal, special educator, teacher and management consultant. He is the founder of an education management consulting firm that provides expert witness and consultation services for attorneys, schools, families, and media around the world.
Location: New Jersey
Ed.D., Rutgers University
M.A., University of New Hampshire (School of Law)
M.A., The College of New Jersey
B.A., The College of New Jersey
Member, American Association of School Administrators
Member, International Bullying Prevention Association
Member, Council for Exceptional Children
Member, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Member, Education Law Association
Former, School Superintendent, School Principal, Special Educator, Teacher
Current, Adjunct University Faculty in the Department of Educational Administration
Current, Adjunct University Faculty in the Department of Special Education