Thirteen-year-old Ashley Davis gets hit by a car while crossing the street to get to her school bus stop. She dies. Who is to blame?
Believe it or not, the school board — to the tune of $90 million. That was the decision of a Prince George’s County, Md., jury. What did the board do wrong? It “was negligent,” said the lawyer for the family, John Costello, according to U.S. News & World Report. “They had adopted a policy to provide for safe transportation. The policy was they were going to pick up Ashley on her own side of the street. They never did. They forced her to cross the street. She got killed crossing the street.”
The magazine quoted the girl’s mother as saying, “If she didn’t have to cross the street … she’d be graduating this year. She’d be going to prom this year.”
The heart aches. How could it not? But if the school board was so wrong — $90 million wrong — for not putting a bus stop on the girl’s side of the street, does that mean every school bus should go up and then back down each street to make sure no child ever has to cross? Otherwise, are they all “negligent”?
Of course not. The jury is treating a tragic and rare event as if it were predictable or even common. But it’s not. We know it’s not. Millions of children around the world cross the street every day, and, thank goodness, the vast majority of them are safe. (For the record, so are the vast majority of people who attend marathons every year. And the millions of kids who attend grammar school.)
But when school boards start worrying that $90 million says they’d better not let any student cross the street EVER, well, let’s see what happens next. Will there be no more school buses, because the liability is too great? Or maybe we’ll see twice the number of daily buses — one for each side of the street. Or — here’s what I’m most afraid of — will students up to and including age 13 be required to have an adult accompany them when they cross the street?
What a simple and cheap solution that would be for the school districts and bus companies. All it would cost: a child’s autonomy and an adult’s ability to get to work on time. Already, there are districts that forbid kids to ride their bikes to school or walk home alone until a certain age, even if the parents and child both believe that the kid is ready. The reason for these helicopter rules is liability. Better not to let kids do anything on their own than to face a grief-crazed jury.
It’s natural to want to blame someone when a child dies. But here’s a novel thought: Instead of blaming the very notion of expecting a 13-year-old to cross a street, why not blame the driver of the car that hit her?
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”