This is the second article in a two-part series on the risks posed by snakes on school grounds and on school excursions. In this series, Kieran Seed, School Governance Reporter, investigates how schools should respond to snake risks and the consequences when snakes and schools interact. Part one discussed a school's duty of care regarding snakes on school grounds. Part two discusses the duty of care on school excursions.
Poll result: 42 per cent of respondents to our School Governance poll, 'Has your school had a snake incident?' answered 'yes'. This result highlights the importance of this issue.
An ‘Excursion’ duty of care
Court cases show that a school’s duty of care does extend outside the school setting in many circumstances. Liability will be imposed where the school has undertaken responsibility for supervising a student.
This has arisen in the context of travel to/from school, while undertaking school sport and on excursions.
Whenever a school takes students to an external venue for the purposes of education or recreation, they still owe a duty of care to those students for the duration of the excursion.
The nature and extent of a school’s duty of care will vary according to the circumstances. Excursions can take on a variety of forms, each presenting risks and hazards which the school must consider and take into account. In the context of a day excursion to a campsite, such risks could include encounters and bites from snakes.
While there are specific obligations in Victoria for non-government schools under the VRQA Guidelines - to ensure 'proper arrangements for supervision of students when engaged in off-site activities' - having policies and procedures for planning and conducting excursions is one of the most effective ways for any school to discharge its duty of care obligations.
A school should have policies and procedures to identify reasonably foreseeable hazards that may be encountered on the excursion. Snake encounters and bites are clearly a risk that should be investigated while visiting a wilderness or rural area. A school should also identify measures that should be put in place to mitigate the risk of a bite, and to minimise the harm caused if a bite has actually occurred.
The venue’s liability
While a school's duty of care cannot be delegated, it is not the only party responsible for student welfare.
The concept of a legal duty of care is not unique to schools – generally speaking, it exists wherever a person knows or should know their actions may cause injury to another. A third party providing recreation services clearly has the potential to owe a duty of care to an attending student group.
Just as a school cannot delegate its duty to its teachers, it cannot abdicate that duty by placing a third party in charge of planning and supervision. If an excursion venue fails to uphold its duty of care obligations – such as by not providing safe and secure premises during a school visit – the school may be vicariously liable for their negligence.
Going on an excursion to an area where snakes are known to lurk in the wild will have hazards that cannot be completely controlled. It would be unreasonable to expect an agency responsible for a national park or wilderness area to remove every single venomous snake.
However, it is reasonable to expect authorities to provide information about the types of snakes that might be encountered, and give advice on the most appropriate emergency procedures. An example would be Parks Australia’s Brown Snake Management Plan for the Australian National Botanical Gardens.
Campsite operators are in a different position, and may have different levels of care expected of them. Depending upon the nature of the camp, it may be reasonable to expect them to check for and protect against snakes entering certain parts of the site, such as the toilets and sleeping areas.
The duty of care placed on venues - under workplace safety obligations - will overlap with the school's duty of care to students. But a school shouldn't assume that the venue has met its WHS requirements.
To ensure all parties are aware of and able to meet their responsibilities, the school and the venue operators must 'consult, cooperate and coordinate' as expressed in the harmonised WHS systems. Both are responsible for taking all reasonable measures to manage risks they can control and influence.
By articulating and understanding each other's limitations, the school and the venue will be able to share responsibility for student wellbeing.
What is the best way to respond?
Excursions may sometimes have a higher level of risk, but that does not mean schools should avoid off-premises activities. Excursions are of clear benefit to students, satisfying curriculum outcomes through kinaesthetic learning while providing them with opportunities for social, personal and emotional development.
Finding the correct balance between safety and education, as we noted in an earlier article, means assessing and mitigating risks at all times during an excursion. This process must be undergone while planning, during the excursion, and even after it has concluded.
Before an excursion, the school should complete a risk assessment and enact risk management plans in respect of the chosen venue. In planning an excursion to a rural or wilderness area, a school would be expected to assess the potential for snakes, with assistance from the operators of the location.
To discharge its duty of care, a school needs to conduct due diligence where there are venue operators who can exercise a level of control over the presence of snakes, requesting evidence that all practicable measures have been taken to maintain student safety. However, as the duty of care towards students cannot be delegated, the school must also do what it can to mitigate the risks.
Students and supervisors should be familiar with the types of snakes in the area, how to avoid them, and what to do if they encounter a snake.
But wearing appropriate clothing and teaching students not to put their hands in cracks in rocks - among other things - may not be sufficient to prevent snake bites. It is also important that a school has an emergency plan, developed in consultation with the venue, dealing with what to do if someone is bitten. Preparing this plan would include:
- stocking first aid kits with bandages and other equipment;
- ensuring supervisors have first aid training;
- locating the nearest emergency facilities with the appropriate anti-venom; and
- training students and accompanying adults to respond safely if they or their peers are bitten.
During the excursion, a school needs to ensure its policies and risk management plans are carried out by attending teachers, such as by:
- maintaining appropriate supervision;
- inspecting the activity site to identify hazards; and
- ensuring that students immediately notify teachers if they think they may have been bitten.
After the excursion, any accidents or incidents which occurred should be reported and analysed, in order to identify ways in which future school excursions could be made safer.
All excursions, no matter their length or group size can present multiple potential hazards. An accident may still occur, despite the best efforts of the school.
However, a school which identifies hazards and takes all reasonably practicable steps to manage those hazards will have discharged its duty of care.
By assessing the risk of snake encounters and bites, introducing both preventative measures and responses to a student being bitten, a school will be providing the best possible protection to its students.
CompliSpace is in the process of creating an online Excursion Management Tool to assist schools in planning excursions and in assessing and mitigating their risks. Stay tuned for more information.
How does your school plan and manage the risks posed by snakes?