LAUSD kids won’t go on field trips to county parks this year unless district signs contract

People at Whittier Narrows park in South El Monte.
Whittier Narrows Recreation Area in South El Monte is among the L.A. County-run parks that remain off-limits to Los Angeles Unified School District field trips because of a dispute over insurance.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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One child’s favorite part of the class field trip to Eaton Canyon was when classmates spotted lizards performing push-ups.

“I learned when we were passing by them that they do push-ups to attract female lizards,” the kid wrote.

Another wrote about hoping to return soon.

“I told my parents and they said it seems cool and for learning so we’re going to go visit again. We searched it up and we’re going to go there in the summer,” the child wrote in 2018. “Thank you for keeping us safe from plants.”


Thank-you notes to the staff and volunteers of Eaton Canyon Natural Area and Nature Center in Pasadena reinforce how school field trips can introduce children to nature, an opportunity they might not otherwise get.

This school year, though, a dispute over liability in the event that a student is injured or killed is preventing the Los Angeles Unified School District from scheduling field trips to 183 parks operated by the county Department of Parks and Recreation, or its pools, nature centers, athletic fields and other amenities. That includes popular destinations such as the L.A. County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens, Vasquez Rocks Natural Area and Nature Center and Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, in addition to Eaton Canyon.

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The county parks department in 2021 began requiring school boards to sign a contract accepting much of the legal risks involved in bringing students from their districts to its facilities, and provide proof of liability insurance to the county.

About 40 school districts have either signed the agreement or are in the process of doing so, according to the county parks department, including Glendale Unified, ABC Unified in Cerritos, Pasadena Unified and Burbank Unified. In total, this includes about 560 schools and 450,000 students, according to the county.

But LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the country with about 420,000 students, remains a holdout, concerned that the county is asking it to take on too much legal liability under the new policy.

“My understanding is that traditionally we shared liability 50/50 with the county, and the ask now is to take 100% should something occur, and that I believe is concerning for the school district,” said LAUSD board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin.


There’s history there.

In 2014, LAUSD student Erick Ortiz, 16, went to county-run Atlantic Avenue Park in East L.A. for a school-sponsored end-of-year bash. Erick had autism and asthma and could not swim, according to court records. Despite having an aide assigned to him, and his parents not giving permission for him to swim, Erick drowned that afternoon at the park’s pool. Staff at his high school signed the county’s permit, which promised the district would take on legal liabilities.

Erick’s parents sued LAUSD and L.A. County, prompting an eight-year legal battle.

In the end, LAUSD escaped liability — and thus paid nothing to the Ortiz family or the county — in part because California law grants districts “field trip immunity,” meaning field trip participants waive claims against a district for any injury or death that occurs on a field trip.

In addition, the district’s attorneys pointed out that, under state education law, a contract with a school district is enforceable only if it has been approved by the district’s governing board. The field trip that Erick attended was approved through the county’s long-standing permitting process — but signed off by high school staff, not the school board.

The county fought LAUSD on both points — arguing that the district was negligent and that it could go after its employees for fraud — but its efforts were ultimately dismissed by a judge.

With L.A. County the only legally liable party, the Board of Supervisors approved a settlement with the family in 2019 for $2.1 million.

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Realizing it had major liability issues to address, the county parks department overhauled its permitting process, which had been in place for years and seemingly held up in other legal challenges, county officials said. The agency held focus groups, and dozens of districts, including staff from LAUSD, have attended its virtual training sessions, county officials said.


“At the end of the day, all we’re asking schools to do is to be responsible for their students while they’re at our facility, and if there’s an unfortunate incident that happens, that they are at the table with us,” said Alina Bokde, chief deputy director at the county parks department.

But LAUSD hasn’t budged.

L.A. Unified spokesperson Shannon Haber in a statement pointed to the district’s new Cultural Arts Passport, which provides field trips to museums and other arts and cultural spaces, as an example of how, despite a lack of access to county parks, the district continues to take its students on enriching outings.

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“We know that field trips, access to open space, and cultural opportunities are a vital part of our students’ educational experience and is especially important for the large portion of our students who don’t have regular access to these enriching resources,” Haber said, adding that district officials have been “working diligently to address County concerns and hope to come to a resolution.”

City and state parks also remain an option, as field trips to both generally don’t require proof of liability insurance. (Some state parks might require liability waivers for students if they go out on a boat; permits granting a school exclusive access to a city park property often do include liability terms and conditions, officials said.)

Franklin, the LAUSD board member, said when she recently inquired about the county park issue, staff members told her that the district and county were working on a compromise.

Under the current county policy, school districts are held to a higher standard than families going to parks on their own, which is somewhat understandable, given the risks that school trips pose, she said.


Regardless of a lack of agreement, both the county and district share the same mission, Franklin said.

“They want city kids to be able to have experiences that open their lungs legitimately with fresh air, that let their bodies run free, and absolutely we would want more of our kids to have more outdoor learning,” Franklin said.

Times research librarian Scott Wilson contributed to this report.