A LESSON FROM BulSU TRAGEDY

By Jemuel D. Caburian

 

            About 180 freshmen students of Bulacan State University (BulSU) had a field trip on August 19, 2014. One of their destinations was the Madlum Cave (also known as the Biak-na-Bato Cave), a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Malolos, Bulacan, where Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo established the Headquarters of Filipino Revolutionaries during the Philippine-Spanish War.

 

            At around 3:00 in the afternoon, nine (9) students were crossing the river of Biak-na-Bato Park going to Madlum Cave when the water suddenly surged. They were swept away and only two survived. The flash flood that hit the river was due to bad weather.

 

            There were mixed feelings over the incident. Some students are blaming the school and the faculty members who joined the trip for not protecting the students enough. Others said it was an accident that could not have been prevented as it was caused by nature. The local government of Bulacan is blaming the BulSU management because it conducted the tour at the river although it is dangerous to go there if heavy rain is pouring it. There are reports that the BulSU management is insisting that the students voluntarily signed a waiver that “whatever happened to them will not be the responsibility of the school.” The parents of the victims are blaming the BulSU management for the tragedy. For them, it does not mean that because there is a waiver, they (the management) are no longer responsible for the tragedy.  

 

On the other hand, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) said that BulSU may have been careless in following procedures when conducting the field trip. Accordingly, it failed to submit the proper paperwork, which includes a risk assessment of educational trip. In as much as the CHED is already conducting a probe on the matter, it would be unethical on the part of this writer to make judgment over this BulSU case. Nevertheless, this paper delves into the legality of the “waiver” that is being signed by the students (or their parents) who are joining a field trip conducted by their school. Such waiver usually stipulates, among other things, that “the school shall not be held liable or accountable for any untoward incident that may happen during the field trip.”

 

In his scholarly work entitled “Everybody’s Dictionary of Philippine Law”, Ismael Khan (2007) defined waiver as “the voluntary and intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known legal right, advantage, benefit, claim or privilege which --- except for such waiver --- the party would have enjoyed.” However, the question is: “Can the school escape from its civil liability because there is a waiver signed by the student stipulating ‘that the school is not liable for damages for any untoward incident that may happen during the field trip’?” It is submitted that the answer to this question is in the negative because the said waiver is contrary to law.


 

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Article 218 of the Family Code provides: “The school, its administrators and teachers, or the individual or institution engaged in child care shall have special parental authority and responsibility over the minor child while under their supervision, instruction or custody. Authority and responsibility shall apply to all authorized activities whether inside or outside the premises of the school, entity or institution.” It is mandatory under the law that the school, among others, must exercise special parental responsibility over its students, and therefore it cannot be waived by any stipulation to the contrary. The said provision is the basis for holding school [personnel] liable for gross neglect of duty due to fault and/or negligence that may be proximate cause for injury, damage or death of their students (Sarmiento III, 2002). In other words, a teacher or school personnel required to exercise special parental responsibility but who fails to observe all the diligence of a good father of a family in the custody and care of students shall be held liable for gross neglect of duty --- even if there is a stipulation in the “waiver” providing the contrary.

 

The parental authority and responsibility of the school, its administrators and teachers, are inalienable and may not be transferred and renounced except in cases authorized by law. One exception authorized by law is “if it is proved that they [the school, its administrators and teachers, etc.] exercised the proper diligence required under the particular circumstances” (Article 219, Family Code). In such a case, the school, among others, may not be held liable for the injury, damage or death of its students. Did the BulSU management exercise the proper diligence required when the field trip was conducted?