Contracts in the Schoolhouse (2010)
Contracts in the Schoolhouse
In late fall of 2009, Citizen Works received a tip about a widespread practice in America’s public schools: the science safety "contract." A science safety contract, though not legally binding, is a document that styles itself as a contract that both students and parents must sign before participating in core curricular laboratory science classes.
Most of the science safety contracts available online appear to be based off of the “contract” produced by Flinn Scientific, Inc. Flinn is a science supply company that sells science education materials to teachers at, reportedly, more than 27,000 schools across the United States. Flinn’s “contract” is available online. The document is essentially a list of safety rules to follow during laboratory education, titled “Flinn’s Science Safety Contract” in large print across both of its two pages. At the end, it contains a signature block for both students and parents to sign. The signature block states that the student agrees to read and follow the rules at all times, and that the parent will instruct the student to do so. It further states that, if the contract is not signed by both parent and student, the student will be barred from laboratory activities.
A spokesman for Flinn Scientific stated that almost all schools use Flinn’s contract or something like it as a precondition for laboratory science classes. Flinn identifies the contract’s purpose as helping parents and students understand the importance of safety, which of course is extremely important during laboratory instruction. Flinn acknowledged that the document is not a binding contract, but did not seem concerned that the document features the word “Contract” prominently on both pages.
Flinn’s contract can be confusing though not for its science safety aspects but because of how it identifies itself as a "contract." It is a document designed for people who are unlikely to know the difference between a binding contract and a non-binding document titled as a “Contract.” Requiring parents and students to sign “contracts” before participating in core curricular instruction can ingrain a worrisome practice of sign — or else don’t participate. Requiring a non-binding “contract” could also have the potential to lead schools to try to impose actual, binding adhesion contracts on students and parents, who may believe that they have no choice, as they have already been made to sign science safety contracts.
Science safety contracts also could be problematic insofaras school administrators who do not understand the purpose of a science safety "contract," or worse, when they intentionally misrepresent it. Though Flinn Scientific insists that science safety contracts are not liability waivers and are not intended to be, this has not stopped at least one school administrator from claiming that they are exactly that. According to a tip from a concerned parent, when she objected to being forced to sign the science safety contract, school administrators (reportedly after consulting with legal counsel) claimed that the science safety contract absolved the school from legal liability.
The “contract” does not exempt schools from liability. A student who is injured in science class by a school’s negligence may retain the full right to sue for damages after signing the “contract.” But if school administrators claim that the contract is a legal waiver, this could deter parents from attempting to sue. In other words, though the document is not a waiver, it may confuse (or be used to confuse) parents into thinking that it is. It may effectively dissuade parents into not enforcing their rights in court.
To be sure, the science safety document has a laudable purpose. Safety is of utmost important during laboratory instruction, and obtaining parent and student signatures helps ensure that everyone is aware of lab safety rules and their importance. However, labeling the document a “contract” has the potential to do more harm than good. These documents should not be labeled or held out as contracts. They should also spell out clearly, in plain English, that they are not legally binding, but only designed to help ensure that the rules are read, understood, and respected. Unless science safety contracts make this change, they will continue to have the potential to confuse students and parents and potentially confound their legal rights.
Below are links to a small sample of the science safety contracts available online:
Many more science safety "contracts" can be found by searching for “Science Safety Contract” (with quotes) in Google. The search can be further refined to only include direct links to .pdf contracts by searching for: “science safety contract” filetype:pdf. This query returns more than 7,000 results.