It’s All Fun and Games Until…. Frequently Asked Legal Questions about School Sponsored Field Trips

by Melissa Thiel Collar, Attorney, Legal Counsel, Green Bay Area Public SD

School principals commonly receive questions regarding different legal aspects of school-sponsored field trips, ranging from who may give permission for a student to participate in a field trip, to whom may accompany students on a field trip, as well as questions regarding medication administration on a field trip.  Your district’s school board policies should address important topics such as the chaperone to student ratio, who may authorize a field trip and guidelines for overnight field trips. Various other school board policies in your district most likely impact field trips as well, which are discussed further below.  

  1. Who can give permission/authorization for a student to attend a field trip? 

Only the following individuals can consent to a student’s attendance/participation in a field trip and sign a permission form: 
  • An individual with a “Guardian” designation in your student information system;

  • An individual who has the rights to make educational decisions; 

  • An out-of-home placement provider; or

  • A student over the age of 18 or an emancipated minor.  

Other individuals who may be listed in your district’s student information system who do not have a “Guardian” designation or other rights or who are not an out-of-home placement provider are not authorized to sign field trip permission forms. This would include other household or non-household relationships, emergency contacts, etc. 

Occasionally, you may encounter situations where there is a question about whether a specific individual has the ability to give permission for field trip attendance/participation, or situations where there is a dispute between parents/guardians about a student’s attendance/participation in a field trip. When these questions arise you may want to seek assistance from your school district’s legal counsel in handling any of those scenarios. 
  1. Who can chaperone a field trip? 

Who can chaperone school field trips is largely governed by your district’s school board policy and possibly other court orders.  For example, Green Bay Area Public School District Board of Education Policy and Rule 353.1 set forth the Green Bay Area Public School District’s requirements for volunteers in schools, which includes chaperones for field trips and District-sponsored events. All volunteers are subject to a background check by the District, and the District reserves the right to rescind, limit, modify or deny a volunteer based on the results of a background check. A background check is required every two (2) years, though the District reserves the right to require a background check or to initiate a background check or re-check at any time.  

  1. Are there limitations on what chaperones/volunteers can/cannot do on field trips? 

While individual district school board policy will govern what a chaperone or volunteer can and cannot do on a field trip, some common limitations on chaperones and volunteers are universal throughout schools which include: 
  • Chaperones and volunteers must adhere to the confidentiality of students and student records under FERPA and Wis. Stat. § 118.125
  • Chaperones and volunteers should not administer prescription or non-prescription medication to a student (other than their own child). 
  • Chaperones and volunteers should not administer any student discipline, verbally or in any other manner. Disciplinary concerns should be brought to the attention of district staff. 
  • Chaperones and other volunteers participate in events at their own risk, and the district does not assume any liability for injury, illness, or damage to or loss of personal property resulting from a chaperoning/volunteering. In most cases, chaperones and volunteers are not covered by the district’s worker’s compensation insurance, or by the district’s medical insurance plan. 
  1. Who may transport students for a field trip? Can a parent transport their own child for a field trip? May they transport other children to a field trip?

Wis. Stats. §§ 121.51 through 121.59 governs transportation of students in schools. Specifically, Wis. Stat. § 121.54(7) provides the following:

(7)  Transportation for extracurricular activities.
(a) A school board may provide transportation for pupils attending public or private schools, their parents or guardians, authorized chaperones, school officers, faculty and employees and school doctors, dentists and nurses in connection with any extracurricular activity of the public or private school, such as a school athletic contest, school game, after school practice, late activity, school outing or school field trip or any other similar trip when:
1. A school bus or motor bus or a motor vehicle under s. 121.555 (1) (a) is used and such transportation is under the immediate supervision of a competent adult.
2. A school operated by the school district or the private school has an actual interest in the safety and welfare of the children transported to the activity;
4. The school principal or other person with comparable authority authorizes such use.
Your district’s school board policy should address whether students may be transported by private vehicles. For Example, Green Bay Area Public School District Board of Education  Policy 751.7 provides that “The transportation for all field trips and other District-sponsored trips is to be by vehicles owned or approved by the District and driven by approved drivers. Exceptions must have the approval of the Superintendent of Schools and Learning or his/her designee. All requests for transportation for field trips and other District-sponsored trips shall be made to District approved carriers only.”   Similarly, Policy 751.7, provides that a parent may transport their own child(ren) to a field trip, but may not transport any other student(s). 
  1. What if a student needs medication administered on a field trip? 

State law requires a Wisconsin school board, with the assistance of one or more school nurses or other qualified individuals to adopt a written policy governing the administration of prescription drugs and nonprescription drug products. Prior to taking students on a field trip, it is critical that district staff responsible for the field trip familiarize themselves with any medication needs for any student(s) attending a field trip, and to assure that staff overseeing a field trip have the appropriate knowledge, skills and training to administer any necessary medication.  Importantly, different standards govern the administration of prescription versus non-prescription medication, specifically, who can administer those medications.  

  1. What should I do in the event of an emergency on a field trip? 

It is imperative that all staff members of a district who oversee a field trip are familiar with their district’s safety and security procedures, which should be set forth in your school board policy.  Any district staff who is overseeing a field trip should review the district’s safety and security policies and address any questions or concerns they have with their building administrator. Specifically, any staff overseeing a field trip shall assure they have reviewed and familiarize themselves with such things as your district’s: 
  • School Security Information
  • Emergency Management Plan
  • Injury Report Form
  1. What should I do if I am asked to sign a contract from the facility where the field trip is being held? 

Occasionally, facilities who host field trips on behalf of school districts have a standard contract they will request schools to sign in advance of a field trip. It is important that district staff who receive a proposed contract consider forwarding the contract to your district’s legal counsel for review, as often times the contract requires that the district waive the facility’s liability on behalf of the attendees or provide penalties or fines for damaged property. 

  1. Can I search a student’s belongings prior to leaving for a field trip?

Schools that wish to search student belongings or lodging accommodations for "suspicionless" reasons (i.e., for prohibited items) as part of a field trip must receive parent/guardian consent (or consent from the student if he or she is no longer a minor) to do so.  The consent is not implied and cannot be passive.  You may consider having a form in place to capture this written consent.  Please be aware that only those school officials designated by board of education policy may search a student’s personal belongings. 

*This article was written by Attorney Melissa Thiel Collar.  The views expressed herein are exclusively those of Ms. Thiel Collar.  This article was designed to provide general authoritative information and commentary as a service to AWSA members. It should not be relied upon as legal advice. You are encouraged to contact your district legal counsel should you require legal advice regarding this topic.  You may also direct your Level I legal questions to Malina Piontek at 608-497-3037 or [email protected]