New Jersey School Districts Have Duty of Reasonable Supervision of Students at Dismissal

Since the New Jersey Supreme Court decided Jerkins v. Anderson, 191 N.J. 285 (2007), it has been clear that school districts remain responsible to supervise their students during dismissal. In Jerkins, the Court set forth three elements that define the scope of this duty. This duty was more recently revisited in McKinney v. Mathew, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1543 (App. Div. June 29, 2016) in the context of an alleged duty to supervise before arrival at school.

In Jerkins, a nine year old child was dismissed early from school. He was in a “walking district” with no bus service. He usually walked home with a family member. His parents were unaware of the early dismissal. The minor left school unattended and went to play with friends. About 2 hours later, he was hit by a car several blocks from school. He was paralyzed as a result of the accident.

The plaintiffs argued that the school district breached their duty of reasonable supervision. The defendant school district claimed they had no responsibility for an accident that occurred after the child’s dismissal, blocks from the school. The Supreme Court disagreed with the defendant school district, finding that the school did have a duty to exercise reasonable care for the supervision of their students’ safety at dismissal.

The Court enunciated three elements that a school district must follow to fulfill its duty of care:

  • the school district must adopt a reasonable policy concerning dismissal and the manner in which students of different ages will be dismissed;
  • the school must provide adequate notice of that policy to all parents or guardians; and
  • the school must effectively implement that policy and adhere to parents’ reasonable requests regarding dismissal.

In the more recent case of McKinney v. Mathew, in an unpublished Appellate Division decision, the court reviewed the applicability of Jerkins to an accident in which a high school student was hit by a car while walking to school. The plaintiff, age 17, was struck by a car and injured while crossing in the middle of a block at an intersection near his school.

The plaintiff argued that the school district failed in its duty to supervise the minor on his way to school. He argued that the district should have had a crossing guard at this location.

However, the Appellate Division refused to apply Jerkins and expand a duty to supervise before arrival upon school property. The court considered the age of the minor (age 17) and noted that he was old enough to appreciate the risk and exercise due care. The court found that the rationale of finding responsibility at dismissal did not apply to the imposition of a duty before the student arrived at the school. Further, even if there was a crossing guard at this intersection, it would not have not prevented the accident because the minor crossed in the middle of the block. The court noted that it would have been futile to direct a resistant teenager to cross in the crosswalk. It would have been a burden to impose on the school a requirement for a crossing guard. For all of these reasons, the Appellate Division found that it would be burdensome to impose the duty of reasonable supervision upon the school district, requiring supervision before the student arrives on school property.

Hence, while recognizing the existence of a duty of reasonable supervision, the McKinney court refused to extend this duty to before school supervision. Regardless, this duty remains applicable upon dismissal.

Based upon Jerkins, school districts must formulate and adopt a specific policy governing dismissal practices. It must include sufficient detail about the adult supervision and patrols present during dismissal, the assigned duties and locations of those adults at dismissal, and procedures for early dismissal days.

Once adopted, the school district must notify the parents of the dismissal policy. Additionally, the school district must inform the parents what supervision will be provided by the school district at the end of the school day and what supervised after school services, if any, are available. Finally, the school district has to adhere to its adopted policy, which includes compliance with the parent’s instructions about releasing a child to walk home alone. If these steps are followed, a school district will satisfy its duty of reasonable care in the dismissal of its students.