Liability Issues Limiting Recreational Use of Public School Facilities

State Laws Need Revision, According to New Study

San Diego, CA, June 8, 2010 – Encouraging physical activity is vital to positive health outcomes and is a worthwhile public health goal. Although most public schools have some recreational facilities that could be used outside of regular school hours, concerns over liability have limited their use. In a study in the July issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers reviewed the recreational use statues in all 50 states and found that liability protections could be improved, in some cases, with minor legislative changes, consequently opening up school facilities for increased recreational use benefiting the entire community.

“The original intent of recreational user statutes was to open up, for the most part, rural and private land for public use for the purpose of recreation, a point often reflected in the statutory language of these statutes,“ according to lead investigator John O. Spengler, JD, PhD, Department of Tourism, Recreation, and Sport Management, University of Florida, Gainesville.

“Social values and norms within the U.S. have changed considerably since the inception of these statutes. Although the importance of recreation cannot be ignored, with evidence that physical activity plays a vital role in reducing the prevalence of obesity, the legislative intent of recreational user legislation should be reframed to include, as a stated purpose, the health promotion of communities. In addition, public schools have facilities that can help meet the physical activity needs of their surrounding communities. Statutes should therefore also reflect a legislative intent to encourage public schools to make their property available to the public for recreational use, recognizing the importance of physical activity to health.”

Forty two states have recreational use statues that could potentially offer protection for public schools that open their facilities to the general public. Types of protected activities found in a small number of states included running and jogging, exercise, playing on playground equipment, roller-skating and roller-blading, and bicycling.

Despite the benefits to the health and physical activity needs of the community, the national prevalence of community access between 2000 and 2006 remains unchanged for youth or adult community sports teams, classes, or open gym. A number of barriers continue to exist in allowing public access to school facilities, including liability, insurance, safety, supervision, operations, and maintenance. While public schools in all states are protected to some degree by a form of governmental immunity, concern over liability is thought to be a key barrier to allowing public access to school property.

Although many schools have playgrounds, baseball/softball fields, general-purpose fıelds, outdoor tracks, outdoor basketball courts, soccer fields, swimming pools, fitness areas, or indoor gymnasiums, only 12 states have statutes that might provide limited liability protections specific to activities performed on these facilities. The authors found that legislation lacks uniformity and depth of coverage for active recreational activities likely to occur on school property after hours.

Spengler and colleagues conclude that “This study suggests the need for further statutory liability protections for public schools, and immunity provisions that target activities that are conducive to physical activity, common on school grounds, and popular among community residents. Empirical studies examining school administrator’s perceptions relevant to liability as a potential barrier to opening school sport and recreational facilities to members of the community outside of regular school hours is suggested.”

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Notes to Editor
The article is “Policies to Promote the Community Use of Schools: A Review of State Recreational User Statutes” by John O. Spengler, JD, PhD, Michael S. Carroll, PhD, Daniel P. Connaughton, EdD, and Kelly R. Evenson, PhD. It appears in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 39, Issue 1 (July 2010) published by Elsevier.

Full text of the article is available to journalists upon request; contact eAJPM@ucsd.edu. To schedule an interview with the authors, please contact Dr. John Spengler at spengler@hhp.ufl.edu.

Study authors are:
John O. Spengler, JD, PhD
Department of Tourism, Recreation, and Sport Management
University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida

Daniel P. Connaughton, EdD
Department of Tourism, Recreation, and Sport Management
University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida

Michael S. Carroll, PhD
Department of Sport Management
University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Kelly R. Evenson, PhD
Gillings School of Global Public Health
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

About The American Journal of Preventive Medicine
The American Journal of Preventive Medicine is the official journal of The American College of Preventive Medicine and the Association for Prevention Teaching and Research. It publishes articles in the areas of prevention research, teaching, practice and policy. Original research is published on interventions aimed at the prevention of chronic and acute disease and the promotion of individual and community health. The journal features papers that address the primary and secondary prevention of important clinical, behavioral and public health issues such as injury and violence, infectious disease, women's health, smoking, sedentary behaviors and physical activity, nutrition, diabetes, obesity, and alcohol and drug abuse. Papers also address educational initiatives aimed at improving the ability of health professionals to provide effective clinical prevention and public health services. The journal also publishes official policy statements from the two co-sponsoring organizations, health services research pertinent to prevention and public health, review articles, media reviews, and editorials.

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine is ranked 12th out of 105 Public, Environmental & Occupational Health titles and 16th out of 107 General and Internal Medicine titles according to the 2009 Journal Citation Reports© published by Thomson Reuters.

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