Property Damage and Parental Liability with Special Needs and Autistic Students

School property damange

Many parents send their children to school with the expectation that they are not going to receive a bill from the school for damaged materials. We just sort of figure that the school will cover the costs if something happens on their property; after all, they have insurance-right! Well, depending on where you live and what school your child attends that may essentially not be a reality. You may, in fact, be liable for any damages that your child causes to their school’s property. The thought of not receiving a bill for damages may just be a dream. Let’s say your child breaks a window in the classroom, or a computer. What do you do now?

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First, react calmly. Maybe you do not agree with the amount of the bill or that you have received one at all. Do not approach the situation impulsively or emotionally. Find out your rights and where the school stands before you state your opinion on the situation. Your first job is always to be an advocate you’re your child. Finding out all the facts from the school’s point of view will help you piece the story together alongside your child’s account of events. This may make all the difference in whether you end up having to pay the bill or not. Listen to your child. Speak for them if the school won’t listen to them.

Now, many of us would react with emotion to a large bill from the school district for an item that we didn’t expect to have to pay for. Your first point of contact should be the Principal and any teachers that witnessed the incident. When you make this contact, get all of your facts- then react. Always approach a situation with a calm demeanor. The outcome is normally far greater than if you approach a situation with pure emotion. If you get nowhere with the Principal and the teachers, then you go to the school board. Email the head of the school board and CC: every member of the board in the email, include the Principal too. Let them know where you stand and why you feel you should not be held responsible for the damages. Keep your calm always though. Be professional about it.

Now, let’s look at some of the laws in the United States surrounding property damage and minors… So, who is responsible for that broken computer or window (or any other item)?

That really does depend on the state you live in and the circumstances surrounding the “accident.” Most states have parental liability statutes that impose liability on parents (or guardians) for the civil or criminal acts of their minor children, regardless of whether they are committed in school or not. The state you live in will decide the amount of money you can be held liable for. The school district will determine if you are actually charged for said acts. That is why you go to the Principal first, then the school board. Start small and then work your way up. The Principal may have all the pull that you need to rectify the bill.

For examples sake though, Hawaii does not impose a limit on the parental liability of a minor. Under Hawaii's parental liability statute, “the parents of unmarried minor children are jointly and severally liable for tortuous acts their children commit (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 577-3). The law does not distinguish between negligent and intentional torts. Parents are also liable for graffiti damage their minor child causes (Haw. Rev. Stat. §577-3.5).” Hawaii virtually has no limit on the amount that a parent can be charged for property damage regardless of intent. This means that if you live in Hawaii and your child damages school property you could be facing quite a substantial bill for it.

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New Jersey is another state that does not cap the liability imposed on parents when a child damages school property. This extends to private property and it is stated that it’s imposed “if the parent does not exercise reasonable supervision and control when a child willfully, maliciously, or unlawfully destroys property (N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 18A:37-3 & 2A:53A-15).”

Three more states hold parents responsible for their children’s actions without limit. Those are Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Florida. ‘Louisiana's statute holds a father and mother “responsible for the damage occasioned by their minor child” (La. Civ. Code Ann. Art. 2318). Under Florida law parents are liable for their minor child who maliciously or willfully destroys or steals property (Fla. Stat. § 741.24).’ New Hampshire code 507:8-e imposes unlimited parental liability for property damage. So, given these laws, if you live in these states you could also face a fairly cumbersome bill, if your child damages property in school.

Other states impose liability on parents, they just cap the amount that the parents are liable for. Most being capped at between $2,500 and $5,000. Some states, like Indiana, have clauses that makes parents of minors completely liable if property is damaged on or off of school property during gang activity. This means that in Indiana you are responsible for any acts of damage that your child commits if they are involved in gang activity. Then you have the areas of the United States such as American Samoa and Puerto Rico. In both areas they still use 14-years-old as the age of maturity. If you live in these areas the situation is most likely going to be handled a little bit differently, depending on age. In most of the United States, age of maturity is 18.

Just because your state imposes parental liability doesn’t mean that your particular school is going to hold you responsible for the accidental breakage of an item. Some schools are more understanding than others. I have heard of special needs children purposely flooding bathrooms in their schools and the parents not being charged for the repairs. I have also heard of children accidentally dropping iPads that had been lent out by the school and the parents being charged the full amount for new ones. In Pre-K, my son broke a window out of his classroom throwing a mug (during a meltdown) and I was not charged a dime for the repairs.

It really depends on the school. With some schools you also must take the item or items that are broken, and the schools budget into consideration as well. There are schools that simply have larger resources. If they have a larger budget they may be less likely to charge you for the damages. Smaller schools tend to need more help to replace things like computers. If you question whether your child’s school will bill you for damaged property, simply ask them.

Though it is important to point out that most of the time there is now a contract between the school and the parent(s) regarding borrowed materials, such as computers. Make sure you read these contracts closely before you sign them. They hold valuable information that may answer your questions before you even answer them.

Broken materials and items are not always a dreadful moment. Remember to keep your calm and get all the facts before you react to any bills you may receive from your child’s school. Research your given states laws regarding property damage with minors. Become your child’s greatest advocate in the process of learning your rights. It’s the finest way to do it anyway.

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