There Is No Such Thing as Plausible Deniability in School Safety

Just because you don’t know about a threat doesn’t mean you aren’t liable for it.

While working with school officials in Idaho and elsewhere, we continue to encounter a rarely voiced, but commonly held and deeply disturbing issue of concern. When articulated, the perception of many campus and district administrators runs something like this: “If we do an assessment, we will be at a greater liability risk.” This belief has often been used as the rationale to avoid performing a school threat and vulnerability assessment. The mindset indicated here is one of plausible deniability.

At this point we need to make the standard disclaimer: We are not attorneys; we don’t even play lawyers on TV.  This is not intended as legal advice. Should you have specific legal questions on this subject, contact your legal counsel.

Plausible deniability is a truly interesting concept. It’s a belief that if you can reasonably assert that you have no knowledge of a vulnerability, then you will have no culpability as well. While this approach has worked in the past for some politicians, it will not work well for school officials on the issues of school safety and security.

There Is a Duty to Care, Standard of Care
In the course of study for administrators in Idaho, we both took a class titled, “School Law and Ethics.” Among the many legal issues covered were two that have direct application in this discussion. The first is related to the very unique legal position of the educator, that of in loco parentis, in the place of the parent. 

The legal doctrine of in loco parentis, that same legal authority that gives our ability to educate assigns to us, the educator, ultimate responsibility for student safety and security. From the playground, to the lunchroom, to the student drop-off/pick-up, to the attractive nuisance of the adjacent cannel or railroad track, the responsibility for student safety rests with us. 
The second legal issue from the same course that applies here is the two-part test for negligence. The first part of the test is the question “Is there a duty to care?”  That question is answered by the previously noted doctrine of in loco parentis. Clearly as educators we have a “duty to care”. The second part of the test is encapsulated by the question, “Is there a standard of care?” 
Over the past few years there has developed an emerging standard of care in school safety and security with the threat and vulnerability assessment as a strongly recommended first step in the process. A comprehensive threat and vulnerability assessment serves a number of positive purposes for the school administrator. When done correctly, it should offer a view, through a multi-hazard lens, of the weaknesses and strengths of the three elements of your school; the school community, the operational platform and the facilities.

Armed with the assessment results, long-term planning will be enhanced with future plans working in harmony with current efforts. Training efforts can be targeted to meet the assessed needs. Mental health and character education programs for students can be implemented to address the holes noted by the assessment.

Ultimately, school officials can allocate resources, both manpower and fiscal, much more effectively. In short there is every reason to have a comprehensive threat and vulnerability assessment preformed in your school and no real reason to avoid the process.

Knowledge Is Power
It is unfortunate that some school officials have taken the plausible deniability approach to avoid a school threat and vulnerability assessment.  Knowledge is power, and by avoiding the process they miss the many real benefits offered by a comprehensive threat and vulnerability assessment.

The bottom line; there is there is a duty to care.  Plausible deniability…….. Don’t think so.

Brian Armes and Guy Bliesner are co-founders of Educators Eyes. Armes previously was a teacher and school principal, while Bliesner was previously an educator and health, safety and security coordinator for a school district in Idaho.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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