As the world changes, so do the questions that the NJSBA policy department gets from school board members. Here’s a query that a policy consultant recently received that would not have been on anyone’s radar even a few years ago: Should schools allow Uber drivers to pick up kids from school?
Uber, of course, along with competitor Lyft, is a ride-share service that has become popular in recent years.
These internet-based companies hire private vehicle owners under the terms and conditions of a legal agreement to provide transportation services through the use of a computer app. Users of these services also establish an account subject to the terms and conditions of the company. Customers can then book and pay for call and hail ride services provided by drivers with privately-owned vehicles.
The Transportation Network Company Safety and Regulatory Act (A-3695/S-2179) was signed into law February 10, 2017 in response to the increasing demand for these services. The Act asserts that:
“Advances in technology and access to cost-effective smartphone applications have meaningfully improved the quality of life of consumers in this State. Transportation network companies provide innovative services that use digital networks to connect riders with transportation network company drivers who use their personal, noncommercial vehicles to provide transportation. These transportation network companies create economic opportunities for New Jersey residents and provide riders throughout the State with another transportation option where other transportation options may not be readily accessible….”
As the popularity of these services has grown, the inevitable has happened: the NJSBA Policy Department has received inquiries for policy that clarifies whether or not minor students may be released with the permission of their parent or guardian and picked up from school by Uber, Lyft or other transportation network companies and more traditional taxi services.
Administrators and board members are grappling with the requirements for providing reasonable care for supervising students’ safety at dismissal and adhering to the reasonable requests of parents and guardians regarding their authorized arrangements for their child’s dismissal. Is a request to release a child to a service rather than a person reasonable?
As is often the case with school board policy, we are driving through muddy puddles and the policy implications are not altogether defined clearly in the law.
The new legislation regulates safer transportation standards for these companies by bolstering the auto insurance requirements for the company and their drivers, requiring disclosure to riders of the method by which fares are calculated and requiring criminal background checks on the drivers (among other things). However, the law does not specifically address the transportation of unaccompanied minors.
Traditional taxi services have to abide by many regulatory requirements that match and exceed the recent legislation for transportation network companies. While state law does not specifically address a cut-off age for the transportation of unaccompanied minors, municipal rules may apply.
Therefore policy may address verifying that such arrangements authorized by parents/guardians are in compliance with the terms and conditions of the company, or state and local law and require that proof be provided by the parent/guardian before the school will allow the release of the student to call and hail services. Policy requirements that verify that the arrangements are legal fortify an argument that supports the school taking reasonable actions to ensure the student’s safety.
An article titled In Loco Parentis states that “schools assume custody of students and, at the same time, the students are deprived of the protection of their parents. In effect, the schools act in place of the parent or instead of the parent – in loco parentis.” This principle is fundamental to statutes that give local boards and school staff authority to make decisions for students in the absence of their parents and the obligation to “anticipate foreseeable dangers and to take reasonable steps to protect those students from that danger.”
The state Supreme Court ruling in Jerkins v. Anderson, 191 N.J. 285 (June 14, 2007), resulted from an incident involving a 9-year-old child who left school property at dismissal despite his standing arrangement to wait for his uncle. The child was hit by a car and suffered irreparable and devastating injuries. The ruling held “…that schools in New Jersey must exercise a duty of reasonable care for supervising students’ safety at dismissal. The duty requires school districts to create a reasonable dismissal supervision policy, provide suitable notice to parents of that policy, and effectively comply with the policy and subsequent and appropriate parental requests concerning dismissal.” The ruling does not address specifically what measures a school must implement to meet these requirements and gives a great deal of flexibility to the district to create policy and procedures that reflect a process that is customized to the school’s demographic make-up, the environment around the school (urban, rural, etc.) and the age range of the students that attend the school or schools of the district.
Likewise, the ruling cites other cases that address the foreseeability of injury as it relates to the schools’ responsibility to exercise care and states that “…the younger the child, the greater the risk, for younger children are less able and less likely to discern danger.” While this is a factor in procedures for dismissal supervision and what constitutes reasonable parent requests, the ruling does not quantify the age or age range of “younger children.”
NJSBA model policy 5142, Student Safety summarizes the requirements for the supervision of students at dismissal, the notification of parents regarding dismissal procedures and the process for documenting parent requests and arrangements for their child’s dismissal. Reflecting the flexibility in the law, there is variety in how schools implement this policy, including various configurations of staff placements, the documentation details that are required for parent/guardian authorization of student arrangements, and the time frame in which the parent/guardian may notify the school of changes in plans. Most examples of the documentation process that I have reviewed include the district requiring the names and contact information of the individuals authorized to pickup a student. Under such a policy or procedure, authorizing a ride sharing service for students would not be consistent with the board policy.
A board may, through policy, prohibit dismissal arrangements that allow a child to be picked by a taxi, a limousine or a transportation network company. As with other policies where the law does not clearly define the scope of the board’s authority, such a policy has the potential to be challenged by a parent or guardian citing the provision in the Jerkin case that the board must effectively comply with “subsequent and appropriate parental requests.” When a policy is challenged, however, a lawsuit is not always the immediate result and the board has the option to reevaluate their position and entertain the parent’s or guardian’s request.
The board should consult its attorney regarding arrangements that include parent- or guardian-authorized ride-share or taxi transportation arrangements, as well as a policy prohibiting this altogether, and what documentation is required to most effectively demonstrate that the board has met the obligation to exercise care. In determining an approach that best fits your district the board should consider the age of your students; company rules; state and local laws and regulations; the possible pros and cons related to your demographics and school environment; and the staff resources that may be required to adequately ensure that a student is appropriately supervised while finding their driver.
It is a busy world and we are all susceptible to the seduction of the many conveniences that are made possible at the touch of a smartphone. It is the role of school leaders to create a pause, and negotiate and reconcile the reasonable exercise of the board’s authority for ensuring the safety of the students with a parent’s/guardian’s right to make decisions for their child. Contact NJSBA’s Policy professionals for consultation on policy development.