10/16/05 — Board still studying liability release

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Board still studying liability release

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 16, 2005 2:20 AM

A controversial policy designed to protect the school system in case a student is injured while on a field trip is still under review by the school board's attorney, while school officials are also weighing concerns about another requirement that asks families to prove they have health insurance.

The liability release was to have been voted on by the Board of Education at its Oct. 3 meeting. The school system received numerous calls from parents upset about the language used in the release, and delayed the vote until the policy could be studied further.

In its original form, the release spelled out that by signing the permission slip, a parent would "release and discharge forever" the school system and its affiliates with any blame for injury or damages that might occur during a school field trip.

Several also complained about the school system's requiring parents to provide a copy of a valid insurance card and proof of health and/or hospitalization insurance for a child to go on a field trip.

Some called the requirement discriminatory, especially for families unable to afford health insurance. School officials said it was not their desire to prevent anyone from being able to attend school trips, and that arrangements would be made to support families in such situations.

On Thursday, school board members said the matter is still under review, and several declined comment until more information is received.

Jack Edwards, attorney for the school system, relayed through his office staff that he was still investigating the policy and did not wish to make a comment yet.

Schools superintendent Steven Taylor said the matter is being reviewed to see what revisions need to be made.

"We followed through as we said we would do" at the October 3 meeting, he said. "We asked schools not to require the liability release at this time."

Taylor said the school system would not prohibit a child from going on a field trip just because the family lacked health insurance.

"At the same time, parents are going to have to assume that responsibility," he said.

Taylor could not speculate on whether the policy might be ready by the next school board meeting, but hopes when it is fine-tuned that it will be met with approval by all parties.

Board Chairman Lehman Smith said he is confident the situation would be resolved to the satisfaction of parents in the community.

"We're trying to draw it up with what's compatible with what parents want," he said.

As for the questions about health insurance, Smith said the goal is to reach a compromise to protect the school system as well as the children.

"We do want them to have medical insurance in case something happens when they're off someplace," he said.

He said it is not the school system's intent to penalize any student or prevent him or her from participating in such events as field trips. In the future, Smith said, the school system might even be able to offer a form of coverage for such situations.

"But we don't want to be responsible for that hospital bill if something happens," he said.

Board member Rick Pridgen said he balanced his comments between his roles as a parent and as a board member.

"As a parent, I understand the frustration," he said. "As a board member, I understand the reason why we have to have it."

At the same time, he said, he agreed that the tone of the liability release was a bit harsh.

"I didn't really approve of the wording," he said.

Pridgen said he had offered several suggestions to the superintendent that have been used in other school systems across the state and feels they could be effective here.

"I'm hoping that some of those would be taken into consideration," he said. "I'm all for us changing from what it was. That's the parent in me more than the board member."

Board member Pete Gurley said the field trip policies will be revisited by the board once the attorney releases his findings and recommendations.

"We're taking a hard look at it because we did have a lot of complaints about it from parents," he said.

Board member John P. Grantham called it a touchy issue, saying, "We have to try to protect the school district as well as the kids."

Board members Shirley Sims and Thelma Smith made no comment. Board member George Moye said the liability release is a legal issue, and he preferred to leave it up to the board attorney before making a statement.