Seeking Counsel: Risky Business

Critical Care

School leaders can take a systemic approach to risk management

Melissa L. Barber

Each day the school district’s staff show up to work and the schoolhouse door opens for students, the school district is exposed to the potential risk of loss. How do school districts respond to this risk of loss? This article provides an overview of what risk management encompasses in a public school system and how such risk can be managed using a systematic approach.

Risk management is the process of identifying and evaluating vulnerabilities that could result in a disruption to the learning environment and legal liability for the school district. Through its implementation of a comprehensive risk management program, school districts can take proactive steps to eliminate or minimize harm to students, staff, and visitors and loss of the district’s financial and physical assets.

Risk management is more than just paying the school district’s insurance premiums. Some districts also enjoy immunity from liability for negligence causing personal injury. However, even with insurance and immunity protections, litigation and other administrative complaints against districts are common. Defense costs quickly add up.

Don’t underestimate the distraction of pulling staff away from normal duties to attend to these matters, including the negative impact of teacher absenteeism on learning and the stress of testifying. Damaging headlines create additional disruption. Paramount though is the desire on everyone’s part to avoid harm to students, staff, and others, as well as to safeguard public resources to use for providing an excellent education for students.

To bring some perspective to this topic, below are a few headlines of recent losses suffered by districts:

  • Student wins multimillion-dollar verdict against district for teacher sexual abuse
  • Maintenance worker prevails against district on racial harassment claim, obtains million-dollar verdict
  • District confronted with ransomware attack causing widespread disruption to its computer network and email and voicemail systems, paid $28,000 ransom in bitcoin to get a “key” to unlock its own files
  • School district faced over $200,000 of freeze-related damages in connection with winter weather
  • Jury awarded over $2 million in damages against district for improperly restraining kindergarten student with disabilities


Risk management must be a shared responsibility among all school district employees. Not many school districts have the resources to create a full-time risk management position, let alone an entire department. But every district should designate a team of central office positions (including operations, facilities, security, human resources, business services, transportation, and in-house legal) to evaluate risk.

The team will determine acceptable levels of risk, and coordinate risk management activities for the district. This includes coordinating with insurers and auditors and ensuring that appropriate school and district leaders are implementing best practices systemwide.

Your risk management team primarily will be guided by the goal of minimizing risk to preserve public resources. However, risk management is an art, not a science. The team will be faced with sometimes conflicting considerations to be weighed—the educational value of activities, available staffing resources, the relative severity and frequency of potential losses, the impact of legal processes, negative publicity, and the loss of community trust.


Once your risk management team is in place, it must:

  • Ensure adequate levels of insurance (commercial general liability, property, auto, employment practices, errors and omissions, workers’ compensation, student accident insurance, data compromise coverage, etc.).
  • Create or update policies and internal control protocols.
  • Establish safety committees.
  • Employ outside technical expertise and auditing services, where needed.
  • Create action plans for identified unacceptable risk.
  • Determine acceptable levels of risk and who is charged with saying “no”.
  • Train employees on the shared responsibility of risk management, as well as on duties relating to workplace conduct, supervision, etc.
  • Create model documents (emergency plans, maintenance checklists, contracts, data protection agreements, volunteer agreements, permission slips, incident reports).
  • Ensure awareness of legal standards relating to school district responsibilities and liability as statutes and regulations change and court opinions provide clarification.

Incidents will happen, but an effective risk management program will not only minimize exposure to loss and preserve public resources, it also will increase morale and productivity and provide staff and students with the freedom to concentrate on teaching and learning.

Melissa L. Barber ( is legal counsel for the Boulder Valley School District, Boulder, Colorado, and a member of the board of directors of NSBA’s Council of School Attorneys.


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