Our greatest asset is our children. As parents, we strive to provide them with the safest and healthiest environment possible. We spend a great deal of time researching the schools they will attend, including the daycare centers where we leave our toddlers for the better part of five days a week. We visit the schools, inspect the premises inside and out, meet with and talk to the teachers, and contact other parents with similar concerns. We read the brochures and pamphlets, and search the internet for information that will help us determine if a particular school will meet the needs of our children and meet our parental standards for care and safety. Does the school or daycare center have trained and qualified personnel to respond properly to health care emergencies? Has the facility thoroughly investigated the background information on teachers, aides, or others who are going to be around our little ones? The sex scandals that have headlined the news in past years have made all parents aware of the importance of daycare centers conducting proper and in-depth background checks on each of their employees.
The recent headlines from Florida’s west coast had to shock every parent who has a child in a daycare center: “Children Watch ‘Monster’ Kill Daycare Teacher.” This was not just another one of those horribly frequent reports of school shootings. This was not just another one of those horribly frequent reports of a crazy man murdering his wife. We have not become so hardened by the frequency of these reports that we can ignore this article and move on through the news. In fact, this incident begs us, as parents, to revisit all of our carefully researched efforts to find and provide our children with a safe place to be while we are away from them. And it compels us to look critically at the decisions we make ourselves, and the decisions that are made by our daycare providers.
Daycare centers, and all schools, have a duty to use reasonable care with regard to the safety and security of the children that come through their doors each day. As attorneys, we learn in law school that this duty is heightened by the knowledge that the daycare center is providing these services to the children by and through the use of its employees. The risk of harm increases and the employer’s duty to use reasonable care increases with each employee or, for that matter, visitor that is permitted access to the children.
From all recent news accounts, it appeared that a teacher at the Cape Coral daycare center was having severe marital problems with her estranged husband. He had threatened her, and she reported the threats to her supervisors at the daycare center. She warned them to be on the lookout for him and to not let him enter the premises. The front door to the school was locked and could only be opened by entering a code in a keypad next to the door. Every parent and employee had been given the code. On several previous occasions, the school had gone into a “lock-down mode” and on special alert because of concern for this same teacher and fear that she might be harmed. Notwithstanding this concern, the school did not require the teacher to stay home, or in some other safe haven, until the tension between the couple was reduced and the risk of harm removed. The teacher, now raising her child as a single parent, was considered to be very good at her work and was admired by parents and children alike. The school chose to keep the teacher on their premises and did not inform the parents of the risk.
On January 25, 2008, the estranged husband came to the school with a gun in his hand, looking for his wife. The school authorities called 911 for help and tried to lock all of the other doors. Teachers gathered the children and raced into closets and restrooms to hide. The gunman found a back door not yet locked, and entered the building. Searching the hallways, he found his wife hiding in a restroom with a group of two- and three-year-old children. The husband then brutally shot and killed his wife as she sat surrounded by the children. The children were not physically harmed, but were terrorized by the incident. A parent of one of the students had arrived just before the shooting. Having quickly moved her child into the safety of a hiding place with other children and teachers, this very heroic parent went back and confronted the gunman, grappled with him briefly, and took his gun from him. The police arrived and took the man into custody.
The news reports and commentary on this tragedy included statements such as, “Why should the daycare center be held responsible for this killing? If someone is going to shoot another person in a situation like this, nothing can prevent it.” Our response is that if the daycare center knew the teacher was under threat and, in fact, had locked down their facility in the past out of fear for her being harmed, why didn’t they require her to stay away from the center, in some other safe haven for herself and her child? Why didn’t the daycare center think first and foremost about the safety of the children at the center? Why didn’t the daycare center notify the children’s parents and allow those parents to make their own decision about risking their child’s safety under the circumstances of this poor teacher and the fatal relationship she had with her husband? Would any of these precautions have made a difference? There may have been no difference to the fate of the teacher who was murdered. However, if she had not been on the daycare center’s premises, the gunman would not have forcibly entered that school looking for her and, in doing so, placed the children at such considerable risk.
As parents, we have every right to expect the people who care for our children to exercise due diligence and responsibility in providing a safe and caring environment for them, and to make decisions that place the safety of the children paramount to any other concern.