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Defining School for the Purpose of Setting Speed Limits in School Zones

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Reviewed Date: July 16, 2021


Original Author: 
Hemsley, Sid
Date of Material: 
Apr 26, 2004

Schools--Laws and regulations--Tennessee
Traffic--Laws and regulations
Streets--Laws and regulations

Defining School for the Purpose of Setting Speed Limits in School Zones

MTAS was asked to analyze the question of what a "school" is for the purpose of the school speed limit laws.

April 26, 2004

Dear Sir:

You have the following question: What is a “school” for the purposes of Tennessee Code Annotated, 55-8-153, which authorizes municipalities to set speed limits in school zones?

You would think that would be an easy question to answer, but it is not. There is no definition of “school,” in that statute, nor in Tennessee Code Annotated, title 55, which contains the traffic regulations of the state. In addition, there is not a single Tennessee case that defines the word “school,” for the purposes of speed limits in school zones. The same is true with respect to all other jurisdictions in the United States. One reason is that the state statutes in many states on the subject define the word “school.”

The word “school” has frequently been defined in other jurisdictions for the purpose of the interpretation and application of zoning statutes, statutes containing alcohol establishment distance regulations, and even for determining what geographical territory constitutes a school zone, but none of those cases are helpful with regard to what are “schools” for the purpose of speed limits in school zones.

The MUTCD helps in a sort of left-handed way. Section 7.A.01 provides that, “A school route for each school serving elementary to high school students should be prepared in order to develop uniformity in the use of schools area traffic controls to serve as the basis for a school traffic control plan for each school.”

At this point, it appears helpful to point out that in Harris v. Williamson County, 835 S.W.2d 588 (Tenn. App. 1992), the establishment of a school zone speed limit under Tennessee Code Annotated, § 55-8-152, is a discretionary function, that the statute authorized, but did not require, the establishment of such speed zones. If that is so, there appears to be no reason why a municipality could not adopt a policy with respect to which schools it will establish speed zones under that statute.
In such an endeavor, Tennessee Code Annotated, § 49-6-301, which is part of the statutory scheme in Tennessee dealing with elementary and middle schools, contains the following even more helpful definitions:

(a) “Elementary schools” are schools serving any combination of grades kindergarten through eight (K-8);
(b) “Middle schools” are elementary schools designated to serve grades five through eight (5-8) or any combination thereof....

Tennessee Code Annotated, § 49-6-401, which is part of the statutory scheme dealing with secondary schools, contains the following definitions:

(a) “Junior high schools” are schools in which are taught any combination of grades corresponding to grade seven through grade 10 (7-10); however the school must contain grade nine (9).
(b) “Senior high schools” are schools in which are taught any combination of grades corresponding to grade nine through grade twelve (9-12); however, the school must include grade twelve (12).

In addition, Tennessee Code Annotated, § 49-6-101, provides that boards of education operating elementary and/or secondary schools can operate preschools for children under six years of age.

For the purpose of mandatory attendance at elementary and secondary schools, Tennessee Code Annotated, § 49-6-3001(c)(3), defines the following public and non-public schools:

(A) “Non-public school” means a church-related school, home school, or private school;
(i) “Church-related school” means a school as defined in § 49-50-801;
(ii) “Home school” means a school as defined in § 49-6-3050; and
(iii) “Private school” means a school accredited by, or a member of, an organization or association approved by the state board of education as an organization accrediting or setting academic requirements in school, on which has been approved by the state, or is in the future approved by the commission in accordance with rules promulgated by the state board of education; and
(B) “Public school” means any school operated by an LEA or by the state with public funds.

It is probably not necessary to include home schools within the meaning of the speed limits in school zones provision of Tennessee Code Annotated, § 55-8-152, because that statute applies when students are going to and from the school. For a similar reason, it is probably not necessary to include preschools; generally, such children will not walk to or from school. But that provision does not appear to distinguish between public and private schools. I suspect the General Assembly intended that the word “school” in that statute apply to both public and private schools.

Tennessee Code Annotated, § 49-6-3001(c)(3) itself contains a useful guide as to which public and private schools probably should be served by speed zones: those public and non-public elementary and secondary schools that are accredited under the rules and regulations promulgated in the State Board of Education in Rules 0520-7-2-.01et seq. I have attached a copy of those rules for your use. They appear to apply to both church-related and private schools that have achieved state accreditation. In fact, Tennessee Code Annotated, § 49-50-801 authorizes church-related schools to apply for accreditation, and the above State Board of Education rules reflect that statute.


Sidney D. Hemsley
Senior Law Consultant


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