Schools Share Responsibility for Students at Dismissal, N.J. Court Rules

June 19, 2007

School districts have some responsibility for what happens to their students after they are dismissed from school, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled recently.

The state’s highest court found that a lower court should have allowed a lawsuit trial for the family of a Pleasantville elementary school student paralyzed after being hit by a car hours after school let out early.

“As the school-time trustees of our most cherished and vulnerable citizens, educators have the responsibility to protect the children in their care,” Justice James R. Zazzali wrote for a unanimous court.

When schools dismiss students from classes, there needs to be a reasonable dismissal supervision policy, adequate notice of the policy to parents and guardians, and compliance with appropriate requests from parents concerning dismissal, Zazzali wrote.

The parents of Joseph Jerkins claimed they were unaware of a 1:30 p.m. early dismissal at South Main Street Elementary School on June 15, 2001, so Jerkins’ adult brother wasn’t there to walk Joseph home.

Instead, the third-grader left unattended and played with friends before the car hit him at 3:50 p.m., paralyzing him from the neck down.

The court decision is likely to affect school districts across the state, with some having to institute new measures on how students, especially young students, are dismissed from school, said Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Possible changes include notifications of early dismissal that parents need to sign, more expansive written policies on how to handle dismissal time and more school staff supervising dismissals, Yaple said.

“In some districts, it might be minor changes. In other districts, it might be some major changes,” Yaple said.

Jerkins’ family sued the Pleasantville Board of Education and the school principal. But a state Superior Court judge decided against a lawsuit trial, ruling that the school wasn’t responsible for an accident that took place hours after dismissal and blocks away from the school.

But on appeal, a state Appellate Division disagreed, ruling that a trial was warranted. The state Supreme Court agreed.

Hackensack lawyer Scott K. McClain, who represented the Jerkins family, said his clients were pleased with the decision, which he described as “just and appropriate.”

McClain also commended the state Supreme Court for providing school districts with some guidance on how to prevent such accidents from happening in the future.

A lawyer for the school district did not immediately return Associated Press calls seeking comment on Thursday.

Clarence Alston, the Pleasantville district’s superintendent, declined to comment on an ongoing lawsuit, but said the safety of students at dismissal time is an issue the district takes seriously.

“I know all of our policies just this year have been totally updated and reviewed by attorneys,” Alston said.

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