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Risk management plans focus on student safety

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Being responsible for the safety and well-being of more than 360,000 children is a serious responsibility that guides some of Scott B. Clark's risk management initiatives.

In 1989, for example, a high school student's football helmet broke when he got hit during a game, causing massive head trauma. The next day, Mr. Clark, risk and benefits officer for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, initiated a comprehensive review of how the district procures and handles its football helmets. His staff interviewed principals, coaches, athletic directors and other administrators—ultimately determining that changes needed to be made.

In response, Mr. Clark developed a program to ensure that helmets were repaired and maintained according to standards set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. He also launched a program to ensure that schools replace helmets five years after they are purchased, which is the length of the manufacturer's product liability coverage. Since the program began, there have been no injuries relating to helmet failure in the school district.

"I think we've done a pretty good job," Mr. Clark said of the district's risk management efforts. "Obviously, it's a big school district. You have to be responsible for (the children), and you have to make sure they're safe and they're not abused in any manner."

The district has put a primary focus on improving and maintaining the safety of its schools, officials said in a special report last October that outlined the district's strategic plan for the future.

Efforts under way before the report was issued, for example, reduced the school district's crime rate by 25% in 2005 vs. the prior year, to 13.3 incidents per 1,000 students.

Dealing with a student's death became a tragic and sad part of Mr. Clark's job when a middle school student was stabbed and killed by another student in 2004, and Mr. Clark wanted to minimize the impact on the victim's family and the district.

The school district entered into a settlement that utilized its limited sovereign immunity under state law, which caps the maximum damages against a public entity at $200,000 per incident unless a higher figure is approved by the state Legislature. The district, which self-insures most of its liability exposures, also put its excess liability insurance of up to $500,000 into play.

The board approved a $700,000 settlement to avoid subjecting the boy's family to a trial while also avoiding the possibility of an adverse jury verdict and unwanted media attention, he said.

Under the settlement, the family could be entitled to another $1 million from the district if the Florida Legislature approves the additional payment that the family is seeking.

"It was just a much more pragmatic risk management approach to handling something that was really a very, very sad case," Mr. Clark said.