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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Is JMU administration responsible for the negative alcohol culture and taking steps to deal with the problem?

On the one hand students are over 18 and are adults who are responsible for their own choices and behaviors. In the JMU Student Handbook under the Student Rights & Responsibilities section #3 notes "James Madison University is no sanctuary from the general law, furthermore, the campus is a community of growth and fulfillment for all rather than a setting described in the concept of in loco parentis."

The legal doctrine of in loco parentis "...existed in the 1950's and prior.  This view held that a college replaced the role of a parent when one entered an institution of higher education.  The institution had virtually complete control over the behavior of students (subject to the limits that parents have in controlling the behavior of their own children) and thereby had similar obligation as a parent over safety issues"

  Over the years the legal environment has changed from the in loco parentis doctrine to the "bystander" attitude to the 1990s establishing the "Duty Era".  A number or court cases have found that colleges and universities owe a "duty" to students under several legal theories of liability.
"...Two basis fact patterns have resulted in defendant success: 1) when a potentially dangerous physical condition exist (such as faulty locks on dorm) and repairs are not made, 2) when a prevailing dangerous practice is common by students (such as hazing in pledge initiations), it is known by college officials and addressed in policy statements, but reasonable efforts are not made to stop or limit such practices, and 3) officials are aware of a specific dangerous activity where injury results, but do not take reasonable steps to limit the possibility of the foreseeable danger..."
Liability theory of negligence has four elements.
  •  the establishment of a duty
  • the breach of that duty
  • harm or injury has occurred
  • the breach of the duty was the proximate cause of the harm or injury
"...the courts are rightly applying reasonable care standards to colleges and universities similar to that applicable to commercial operations in general.  This reflects the reality that colleges are not only academic centers,but have many other roles, such as landlord with respect to student and faculty housing and that as a place open to the public where visitors are welcomed.  In those roles, courts are increasingly holding the institutions to the reasonable care standard when duty exist under rules applicable to other business establishments." 
(from Colleges' Civil Liability Exposure Related to Student Safety,on the web at

* the article notes that most of the above discussion is drawn from "The Rights and Responsibilities of the Modern University, (Carolina Academic Press, 1999), by Robert D.Bickel and Peter F. Lake. Additionally, information was drawn from "Shared Responsibility: The Duty to Legal Externs, by Kathleen Connolly Butler.

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