Personal Injury in the Class Room: A Western Australian Court Decision
In the recent case of Sidhoum v Minister for Education  WADC 35 (22 April 2022) a class of Year 12 students at Shenton College got out of hand and boys started to throw small computer stands at each other.
The background to the injury
The teacher dealt with the situation by taking the stands off the boys, making the boys sit on the floor, and then sending one of the offenders outside. The teacher then left the classroom to chat to the boy outside. Unfortunately while the teacher was outside two of the boys, including Sidhoum, recovered the computer stands from the teachers desk and started to throw them at each other again. Sidhoum was struck in the eye and suffered permanent and serious injury. Sidhoum sued the school for breach of duty of care.
There was no dispute that the School owed the children, including Sidhoum, a duty of care. Sidhoum argued that the teacher breached her duty of care by failing to adequately supervise the class and by failing to take steps to prevent the boys from throwing the computer stands at each other again once she left the classroom. On the other hand the school argued that the teacher had followed the guidelines by removing the objects and then settling the class before leaving to go outside.
A critical part of the case was the time taken between the teacher sending the boy outside and the teacher then leaving the classroom:
- The school argued that the teacher sent the boy outside, waited until the class had settled (which they said was about 10 minutes) and only then went outside. On that version the teacher would presumably have satisfied herself that the class was no longer at risk of the boys resuming the throwing; but
- Sidhoum argued that the teacher left within moments of the boy being sent outside ie: the class had not yet settled. Therefore at the time of leaving the class there was an ongoing risk that the disturbance would resume and that the boys would continuing to throw things thereby putting the class at risk.
Five steps could have changed the decision
The Court decided that:
- a school has a duty to not only not do something that puts children at risk (passive duty), but also the duty to act to ensure that there was a safe school environment (positive duty);
- a breach of duty includes not maintaining discipline in the classroom, for example by allowing a situation to escalate where children are throwing things, such as firing paper pellets at one another etc;
- when managing a class a school teacher needs to take into account “the well-known mischievous propensities of children”. In this case the school was well aware that Sidhoum and some of his friends had behaviour problems. In addition boys of that age are well known to be mischievous and have a propensity to take risks;
- critically the Court found that the teacher probably left the classroom shortly after ejecting the boy, and did not wait and settle the class before leaving. For that reason there was every reason to suspect that after she had walked out that the boys would start misbehaving again;
- when she left the classroom she left the computer stands on her desk. She should have taken the computer stands with her or locked them away;
For these reasons the School was deemed negligent.
Sidhoum’s compensation was assessed at $558,000. BUT.
A Counter Claim for Contributory Negligence
The school then argued that Sidhoum was also to blame for his own injuries: he was 16 years old and by that age should be able to understand the risks of throwing sharp things such as computer stands: during the class disruption he had been hit in the chest; the teacher had reprimanded him; and the risk was obvious. Nevertheless as soon as the teacher left he continued to throw the computer stands. The Court agreed that he was partly to blame and reduced his claim by 35%.
The Court reduced his compensation to $362,700.
The teacher was confronted by a very difficult classroom situation. But equally the boy suffered significant and permanent injuries to his eye while under the care of the school. This case is an interesting reminder that when supervising children that you need to take positive steps to prevent exposing the children to foreseeable risks of injury.