Risk | Vulnerability

Insider Insights: Can Schools Avoid Security Liabilities?

February 7, 2019 | 5 min read
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How much liability does my school face if I commission a risk assessment and find out all of our vulnerabilities? Could I avoid those liabilities if we remain unaware of our deficiencies? School principals ask me this all the time. They say, “I don’t want to have an assessment done, because if I know what my problems are, I’ll be more liable.”

Setting aside the horrific ethical and moral implications that question raises, schools are actually more protected legally, and for security, if they know what’s wrong. Even if they don’t fix their security issues right away. Here’s why every school is better off conducting physical security risk assessments.

When it comes to liability cases, knowing about a security issue actually gives you the ability to be more protective, not more liable. Here’s why.

Related: How Do I Protect Risk Assessments from the Public?

Is Ignorance Bliss?

Imagine you go to a supermarket and there is a puddle on the floor that isn’t marked. You don’t see the puddle, and you slip and fall. Is the supermarket liable? You bet. Whether they knew about the wet spot or not, they’re still liable. Even if they had no knowledge, it’s their responsibility to know about the hazard and do something to prevent injury.

Now let’s say that they knew about the hazard and they put a sign in the aisle to warn customers. Are they still liable? It depends. In this case, investigators will ask about how much time was spent to remediate the risk—had it been hours since the puddle was spotted, or was somebody on their way to get a mop when you slipped and fell? That makes a big difference, and all the possible variables come into play.

Of course, the third scenario is that the puddle was spotted and cleaned up immediately, before anyone was injured. In this case, knowing your vulnerabilities definitely makes a big difference in reducing liability!

Generally speaking, if you know about a security risk or vulnerability and you’re in the process of taking action on it, you’re more protected against liability. Even if you’re not able to resolve the issue at this time, planning out your remediation can be enough to reduce or remove your liability. Some issues simply take a long time to remediate. Not everything can be fixed at once—especially if it’s an expensive issue, or a complicated one. The courts realize this, and they take those variables into consideration.

The key is to be taking proactive measures and to be moving towards remediation.

Related reading: Using Big Data To Prevent And Mitigate School Shootings

Risk Assessments Don’t Increase Liability

On the other hand, what happens if you claim ignorance because you neglected to conduct a security risk assessment? The plaintiff will put a security expert on the stand and they’ll ask some damning questions:

  • In your professional opinion, should the school have known about the issue?
  • Is there any reason the school shouldn’t have been conducting risk and vulnerability assessments?
  • Could this issue have been reasonably foreseen?

Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, those questions won’t go well for the school administration.

Some time ago, we had done an assessment at a manufacturing facility that had multiple thefts of major products. It was a huge problem. The organization called us in to do an assessment, and I asked, “How long has the gap in the fence been there, by the entrance?” They didn’t know what I was talking about. This was a three-foot gap that every employee walked past every day, yet they didn’t recognize it as a problem!

If this had been a liability case, every employee in that facility would be a potential witness against the company. Everyone knew the gap was there, even if it hadn’t been seen as a security threat. Because the question is, “Is it foreseeable?” In that case, it absolutely was!

Just because you don’t have a security assessment done, that doesn’t absolve you of liability, because many security issues could be foreseen. And it just takes an employee to say, “We see it all the time—it’s been there for years.”

If that happens, not only are you liable, your liability could increase!

So what does that leave us with? Number one, an assessment will not increase your liability. Because:

  • Ignorance of a vulnerability is not a valid excuse.
  • Foreseeability will come back to bite you.
  • People in your own facility will be forced to testify against you.
  • Simply beginning the remediation process is enough to reduce or remove liability.

The Costs of Liability

In 1994, the infamous McDonald’s coffee case went to court. A woman had spilled McDonald’s coffee on herself and suffered third-degree burns on her lower body. It made national headlines for weeks, and the TV sitcom Seinfeld even had an episode based on it.

The woman sued the restaurant, claiming they knew the coffee was too hot. McDonald’s claimed ignorance that it could happen, and placed blame on the customer for not handling the coffee cup properly. But because the incident was foreseeable, the woman won the lawsuit. What was originally a simple request for payment of medical bills became a $2.86 million cluster storm for an international brand.

Most organizations don’t realize how a physical incident will affect their brand or reputation. How important is your school’s reputation? If an incident were to happen in your school, how likely is it that your school will remain open? How long will it be shut down? How will it affect the careers and livelihoods of your teaching staff and administration? What will be the ramifications on your entire school district?

Protect Your School—Assess Your Risk

You can no longer say a security incident could never happen here. There have been over 300 different school shootings in the last ten years alone. There is no excuse for ignorance, anymore.

Further reading: Don’t Misspend Your School Security Funding

Every school should conduct a risk analysis on a regular basis. With technologies like Circadian Risk, it is much more affordable than ever. We have industry experts and partners around the country that we can refer you to. With Circadian Risk software, your physical risk assessment can be done in a fraction of the time—and a fraction of the cost.

Don’t hide from your liability—reduce it! Contact us today to talk about how to take the first step.

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