Changes in liability laws could open up schools for community recreation
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Politicians can’t outlaw childhood obesity, but they can tweak current laws to encourage public schools to open their recreational facilities after hours without the fear of getting sued.
So concludes John Spengler, an associate professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Tourism, Recreation and Sports Management.
Spengler recently completed a national study that found that even small legislative changes could encourage public schools to open their playgrounds and other sport and recreational facilities on school property for healthy recreation after school hours.
“For children in communities with few resources, a school in the heart of their community may be the only option for physical activity when a public park is too far away or their family can’t afford to join a fitness center,” said Spengler. “Without this option, they are more likely to stay in the house, watch television and play video games.”
Schools are ideal for community recreation because they usually are closer to home, are more safe and familiar to kids and parents, and have exercise amenities such as tracks, gymnasiums, ball fields, playgrounds and courts, Spengler said.
But principals and school districts often close the facilities after hours because they fear costly lawsuits and liability for payouts if someone is hurt, he said.
One remedy is small changes to existing laws, Spengler said. The study he led, scheduled for publication in the July issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and available online today, analyzes recreation use laws from all 50 states. It found that 42 states have laws that, with minor legislative changes, could potentially limit public schools’ liability when members of the public use school property for recreation after regular classroom hours.
While these laws include broad language about liability protection, they lack uniformity and depth of coverage, Spengler said. They would be more effective if they listed specific recreational activities that would likely take place on school property after hours and that are conducive to physical activity, he said.
Five state laws simply refer to activities undertaken for the purpose of recreation, leaving courts to interpret the meaning of “recreation” within the context of a particular case, Spengler said. Other states use broad terms such as “winter sports,” “athletic competition,” “recreational activities” and “sporting events and activities,” he said.
Of the small number of states that list activities protected from liability, bicycling was the most commonly mentioned in recreational laws, by 16 states, followed by rollerskating and rollerblading, 4, and skateboarding, 3. Only one state, Idaho, identified “playing on playground equipment” as a protected activity and no state recreational laws specifically mentioned activities that take place in indoor facilities, he said.
“It’s important for legislators to consider incorporating changes that would cover activities in gymnasiums since weather constraints often prevent people from exercising outdoors,” Spengler said.
Another possible solution, although not addressed in the paper, would involve splitting the risk of liability between parties, such as a school district and a city, through a joint use agreement, he said.
“Liability is not the only barrier to public access to school facilities,” he said. “There is also cost, maintenance, security and supervision. But we feel it is the most important issue that needs to be addressed in terms of making school administrators feel more comfortable about opening their facilities.”
The subject is particularly timely with increasing public awareness about the relationship between physical inactivity and obesity, particularly among children, a problem that is receiving national prominence with attention from First Lady Michelle Obama, he said.
Despite the health benefits of schools allowing members of the general public to use their facilities for recreation, community access remained unchanged for youth and adult community sports teams, classes and open gym between 2000 and 2006, Spengler said. In addition, unpublished data from a national study of school principals found that schools were limiting after hours activities for their own students and others out of fear of lawsuits, he said.