By Sara Goldsmith Schwartz and Sarah H. Fay
So a third grader wants to take the subway to school? Or a 6th grader wants to take the commuter rail? When is independent travel on public transportation okay?
By offering incentives like free services and reduced rates, cities across the nation are encouraging students to use public transportation as a means to travel to and from school. The shift from school bus to local bus, however, raises new challenges for independent schools. The threshold issue is the appropriate age for a student to travel on public transportation unaccompanied by an adult.
Little legal guidance exists on this particular issue. There are few federal, state or municipal laws establishing a minimum age at which a child may travel on public transportation alone. And only a few transit carriers – primarily those that offer interstate travel – have adopted rules regulating minor travel requirements.
In the absence of rules or regulations, independent schools should consider implementing best practices by adopting policies and protocols that address independent student travel requests.
Students’ safety is, of course, a paramount concern for independent schools. In light of the myriad risks associated with unaccompanied minor travel, a school may want to deny all parental requests for permission for unaccompanied travel. However, whether for medical, financial, personal or other reasons, the reality is that families may have to rely on students taking public transportation to and from school alone. Thus, an absolute ban may be too restrictive.
If a school chooses to approve parents’ requests for unaccompanied travel, we recommend that the school adopt protocols and guidelines. For example, a school may want to impose a minimum age or grade requirement. Yet, the maturity of the student may be more relevant than biological age or grade. Indeed, delays and cancellations are often associated with public transportation. The ability of a student to handle unexpected situations will be critical to safe and reliable travel. Therefore, adopting a policy that considers parents’ requests on a case-by-case basis by weighing various factors, such as maturity, may be an appropriate way to manage the various interests at stake.
Notably, a child without proper parental care or supervision may raise concerns of neglect. We recommend that a school take into account the state-specific definition of neglect when evaluating all parental requests for unaccompanied student travel. In sum, the policy should balance the parent’s request against the risks associated with the child’s safety.
As a best practice, we strongly encourage all schools (that permit students to travel unaccompanied to and from school) to obtain written authorization and a release of liability from legal guardians via a Transportation Permission Form. Written authorization should be required even in a one-time situation. The release might include language that the parent’s permission for the child to travel unaccompanied is based upon the parent’s personal belief that the child has the maturity and self-confidence to respond appropriately to any challenges that the child may encounter during the travel. We recommend that the Transportation Permission Form specify the modes of transportation permitted, and be signed by both legal guardians.
In addition, we recommend that schools educate parents to follow these protocols:
- Require the student to sit as close as possible to the bus operator or in the first rail car where the railcar operator’s cab is located;
- Confirm that the student feels comfortable traveling alone and is familiar with the route;
- Verify that the student understands where to wait for the bus/train, the protocol for boarding and exiting the bus/train, and pedestrian safety; and
- Establish a plan for what to do in the event that the student misses the stop and in the case of an emergency.
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It might not occur to a school to develop an unaccompanied minor travel policy until an issue arises. However, a well-thought out policy and carefully-drafted protocols will diminish the risks associated with students traveling alone to and from school.
Please feel free to contact a member of the Firm’s Education Practice Group if you have any questions about any state-specific or municipal-specific requirements, and best practices for unaccompanied minor travel request release forms, policies and practices.