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When a School Arts Project Goes Terribly Wrong

September 26, 2017

As far as school art projects go, this one seemed like it was going to be fun and simple. Maybe a little bit messy but, again, fun.

CCIG’s Joaquin Escobar.

The kids were given paper, a mixture of paint and dishwashing soap and straws. Their assignment? Just drip a bit of the paint mixture onto the paper and then blow into the straw to swirl it around to create all kinds of patterns.

It’s a technique that encourages exploration, investigation and a little bit of scientific thought. Millions of schoolchildren have brought their straw paintings home for their parents to see.

But this time things went horribly wrong.

It was at a preschool, and the child, a 3-year-old girl, did exactly what she wasn’t supposed to do: rather than blow gently through the straw, she inhaled.

Under ordinary circumstances, the problem wouldn’t have amounted to much. In this instance, however, the dish soap was a commercial detergent that contained caustic chemicals.

The girl spent a week in the intensive care unit and was sent home. Doctors, however, readmitted her when she complained about stomach aches. They discovered a tear in her esophagus as well as lung damage. Also, an abscess next to her heart had formed. This time she spent eight weeks in the ICU before returning home again.

Naturally, the school’s administrators and teachers were devastated. The child’s welfare had been placed in their trust. But rather than send home a budding artist, a child was left clinging to life.

The school took action in hopes of easing the parents’ plight. Some things it did right, others not so much.

For instance, it began to cover their lost wages. Both parents were taking unpaid time away from work to be with their daughter. The school also said it would extend free tuition for the child for a year. Neither action was advisable.

As in much of life, there are a few insurance lessons in this case for school administrators and owners, a few do’s and don’ts. To wit:

  • When a child is seriously injured on your premises, report it immediately to the authorities and your insurance broker. Waiting helps no one. You want your insurance company to be informed as soon as possible. Prompt notice makes it easier to investigate and resolve a claim. Delays in reporting can hurt efforts to resolve a claim or potentially affect coverage.
  • Don’t admit liability. You might believe that you are, in fact, liable. But that’s a question for insurance claims departments to navigate, if not the legal system. We’re not saying not to be sympathetic and as supportive of families as you can be. But let the professionals help determine your share of the liability, if any.
  • Don’t offer to pay anyone money. Your policy likely will not reimburse you and, worse still, doing so could help the plaintiffs in the lawsuits that often crop up to make a case against you.
  • Keep detailed records. Meticulous records are evidence of your activities and actions. Write down any communication you have with the family, including any phone calls, emails and face-to-face conversations.
  • Communicate any contact you have had with the family to your insurance company and let it be your guide regarding any ongoing contact, because any action on your part could have an impact on the outcome of the claim.
  • Do the same with any communications between you and your insurer. Get things in writing, and note when you contacted your provider and what you discussed. If your insurer requests copies of anything, keep a copy for yourself, too.

In the end, there’s no doubt that a preschool, or any school, owes what the legal profession refers to a “duty of care” to its students. That’s why it’s so important to carefully think through student activities and assess the possibility for injury. But there’s no reason to leave yourself defenseless when accidents happen.

The girl’s prognosis, not incidentally, looks good. As of this writing, a feeding tube is soon to be removed and she’s on the road to what looks like a full recovery.

Joaquin Escobar, an Insurance Advisor at CCIG, handles the risk management and insurance needs of commercial childcare and school accounts. Reach him at 720-212-2054 or

CCIG is a Denver-area insurance brokerage with the full-service capabilities of a national brokerage. We do more than make sure you have the right policy. We also help you manage your long-term cost of risk with our risk and claims management expertise and a commitment to service excellence.

Also read: A New Chapter in Teacher Background Checks

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