Watch Your Language

Published: September 9, 2010

As anyone who has spent much time in a courtroom knows, the truth does not always come across to a jury in spite of a legal system designed to bring out the truth. The well-intended words of campus officials who are simply trying to maintain an image of an organization that makes safety a priority can unintentionally create ammunition for an attorney or a reporter. 

For example:

  • A statement that “safety is our top priority” could provoke a request to back the statement up with budget figures that demonstrate that the largest budget item is safety.
  • A statement “we utilize state of the art security technology to protect people” could create a challenge to demonstrate that the organization’s technology is the latest available technology of its type.
  • Wording on a sign that states “to ensure the safety of our students, we require that all visitors sign in at the front office” could be used to imply an obligation to protect beyond the organization’s ability. 

One security director recently told me that his campus organization had to settle a lawsuit because a local law enforcement officer designated an area on campus as a “school safety zone” and told students to congregate in that area so they would be safe. When a student was victimized in that location, a suit was filed alleging a duty to protect.   

Scanning mission statements, policies, signage, Web courses and training videos for wording that could create an implied duty to protect or safety standards that cannot be realistically proven or met can save considerable trouble later. It is fairly easy to revise suspect wording to more defensible statements that convey the same basic message. Doing so can save considerable trouble in the event a safety incident occurs.

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