Student Safety: What Should Parents Expect From Schools?

Traumatic brain injuries? In gym class? How often does this happen?

According to a study released by the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, more than 60,000 U.S. students are hurt each year during gym class. A physical education teacher is expected to supervise children engaged in a multitude of exercise movements and activities in a large and open physical environment. This requires good planning, best practices, and proper supervision.

What should parents expect when they leave their children in supposedly safe, supportive and challenging school environments? How about during gym/physical education[PE] class time?

Providing a safe physical environment and organizing activities in a manner that promotes safety and injury prevention is critical to physical education. The concept of a safe vs. unsafe physical environment can be described through two different scenarios:

  • Scenario A. Due to inclement weather all PE classes are required to relocate to the gym and the space is crowded. The teachers on duty break the students into a circuit to utilize gym space properly, creating enough space for exercises to be executed while maintaining an environment where the teachers are able to walk around the groups and supervise the students using visibility and proximity.
  • Scenario B. Same as scenario A, however the teachers decide to separate the gymnasium by activity, having a group of students play basketball on one end of the court and another group play wiffle ball on the opposite end. A basketball player runs for a loose ball just as a runner in the other game heads to third base and they collide; one suffers a head injury and the other, a broken wrist.

These two scenarios demonstrate the importance of organizing a physical environment to provide separation of activities and adequate supervision. Scenario A arranged the student activity in a manner that was amenable to teacher supervision and provided activities in which students could be properly spaced, generally creating a safe environment for physical activity. Scenario B failed to provide a safe environment. By arranging student activities in a manner that invited collisions, the teachers increased the likelihood for injury.

Student safety must be a primary concern in the physical education environment. As a result of large class sizes, dynamic activities, equipment usage, outdoor fields, and students of all sizes and physical abilities integrated in the same physical space, these classes inherently require a higher concern for safety than other educational environments.

Teachers are the first line of defense in providing a safe educational environment and must consider a number of factors that may contribute to student injury or harm. A routine walk through before the children enter the area should be conducted to identify and correct or eliminate any hazards in the facility/grounds. This simple process is frequently the best prevention for slip hazards, clutter that may contribute to trip injuries, or any other issues that require attention. Teachers must also consider elements specific to their environment that may be conducive to assaults, abuse, or dangerous horseplay; examples of such areas may include locker rooms, retractable bleachers, and other secluded areas. All of these issues need to be managed within the context of the students, and it is important for teachers to adjust their classroom management in a way that accounts for special needs students and other behavioral concerns.

  • Lessons must be planned and coordinated for the allotted space
  • All areas need to be inspected for hazards
  • Equipment needs to be appropriate for the activity and routinely inspected
  • All grounds need to be assessed before activities begin and monitored for safety and security

Teachers and administrators collaboratively are responsible for putting supervisorial methods in place that create a safe environment for children. These responsibilities include:

  • matching students by age, size, and skill-levels for physical activities;
  • developing curriculum and activities that consider proper skill progression for the entire group; and
  • designing activities that are safe and appropriate within the available fields and facilities.

When an injury does occur to a child during PE, creating an emergency action plan in advance can be critical to the outcome. It is imperative to have an emergency team in place to respond. School administrators and teachers should have roles assigned and established communication plans. Practice drills should be performed on a quarterly basis to ensure everyone understands their roles and will be able to respond in the event of an emergency.

Gym/PE Safety Guidelines

  • Team members must model safe practices at all times, supervise appropriately and communicate safety expectations to children.
  • Team members must develop procedures to ensure the highest possible level of safety, while allowing children to engage in a broad range of challenging activities.
  • Team members must communicate to children the safety rules and the importance of safe practices at the beginning of each lesson and to parents through school newsletters, agendas and so on.
  • Wherever possible, potential risks must be identified and procedures developed to prevent or minimize the risk of accidents or injuries (e.g., noticing a rock sticking out of a field, designating that area out of bounds with a pylon and reporting it to school/facility officials for safe removal).
  • Outline the possible risks of the activity (warnings of possible dangers); demonstrate how to minimize the risks and set procedures and rules for safe play.
  • It is important that team members have concern for their own and children’s safety, and that they ensure safe practices are followed at all times when using materials and equipment and when participating in performance tasks.
  • Any team member who is providing instruction and is unfamiliar with the techniques/equipment used for the activity must seek assistance from appropriate support staff and/or refrain from using the equipment until instructional support is received.
  • Inspect the equipment to ensure that it is in good condition.
  • Children must be instructed in the proper use of the equipment before using it.
  • A first-aid kit should be easily accessible, and an emergency plan should be in place in case of accidents.
  • Children should be made to feel emotionally and psychologically comfortable at all times. For example, be aware of their comfort when they are changing for physical activity, forming groups, demonstrating physical tasks and discussing health topics.
  • Team members need to be aware of the medical background and physical limitations of their children (e.g., asthma, allergies). For children with medical conditions, know the school emergency action plan to implement in case of an emergency. For children with physical limitations, modify the activity to meet their specific abilities.
  • Early Learning–Kindergarten teams must establish routines, rules of acceptable behaviour and appropriate duties of children at the beginning of the year and reinforce these throughout the year. The Early Learning–Kindergarten team must sanction children for unsafe play or unacceptable behaviour and must exercise that responsibility at all times.
  • Children must be made aware of the rules of activities or games. Rules must be strictly enforced and modified to suit the age and physical, emotional, social and intellectual abilities of the participants.
  • For tag games, clearly define areas of the body that can be tagged (e.g., back, arms). Instruct children that a tag is a touch—not a push, punch or grab.
  • Due to the age of the children, the Early Learning–Kindergarten team must be present with the children at all times, providing on-site supervision.
  • Check that the equipment is suitable for the age and ability of children and size of the activity area.
  • Check that footwear is suitable for the activity (e.g., a tied running shoe with a flat, rubber, treaded sole) and that clothing is appropriate for freedom of movement.
  • Inspect that the surface of the activity area provides safe traction. Where carpets are being used, carpets must be flat and secured to the floor so as not to present a tripping hazard. Eliminate potential hazardous conditions (e.g., remove furniture and equipment not relevant to the activity, ensure classroom floors are free of books, backpacks and extension cords). 
  • When using the gymnasium, outline boundaries for the activity a safe distance from walls and obstacles (e.g., use the basketball court boundary lines or a set of pylons a safe distance from the walls).
  • When using the classroom, move furniture to the perimeter of the room and outline the activity area (e.g., using masking tape or pylons), keeping a safe distance from the furniture and walls.   
  • Explain (demonstrate where applicable) the movement skills to be performed in the activity.
  • Games and activities must be based on skills that have been taught.
  • Remind children to be cautious when moving and to be aware of the personal space of others.
  • Check that activities are spread out to minimize interference from other activities/games.
  • For classroom activities, include activities that have a controlled amount of movement (e.g., running on the spot, chair exercises).

While the majority of gym class injuries are soft tissue, such as sprains, minor cuts and bruising, a substantial number of more serious hard injuries happen, including head trauma, broken bones, broken teeth, eye injuries, and more.

While most injuries are unavoidably accidental, there are a number of others that are entirely avoidable and occur only because the school or the physical education teacher was negligent.

A question parents often raise concerns the liability of the school for their child’s gym class injuries. Is the school liable, and if so, under what circumstances? 
All schools, whether public, private, secular, or religious, have a legal duty of care (obligation) to protect their students from undue harm and bodily injury. The duty begins the minute the student steps on the school bus in the morning and ends when the student steps off the school bus at night (or leaves the school by other means).

When a school fails to do everything reasonably possible to protect its students, and that failure results in a student’s injury, the courts have traditionally said the school breached (violated) its duty of care. The breach is essentially the court’s declaration of the school’s negligence. When negligence occurs, the school becomes liable not only for the student’s injuries but also for the students’ subsequent damages.

Damages include reimbursement for the injured students’ medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses for medications, crutches, slings, etc., and if the child was in high school and had a part-time job, for his or her lost wages. If a parent had to miss work to take the child to and from treatment, the parent’s lost wages are included as well. Damages also include the child’s pain and suffering and emotional distress.


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