What’s going on out there is scary. In today’s environment it is almost impossible for teachers and principals to do their job with the threat of lawsuits constantly hanging over their heads. That’s why it was so refreshing when President Bush signed into law last week a bill that makes it more difficult to sue teachers and principals when they discipline students. As long as educators are acting within the law and established school rules they will now be protected from being sued. The protections are part of a sweeping education reform package.
By Cora Sue Mach, President
Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse Houston
More than ever, parents were using the threat of a lawsuit to get their kids out of trouble. This undermined the authority of teachers who were being drawn away from the real job at hand: teaching, testing and grading students. How can a teacher instill civility and order in the classroom when they are aware of cases such as the ones that follow?
A seemingly harmless light tap on the ankle received weighty legal attention in Kenedy, Texas, recently. A youngster was crouched on the floor and not responding. So his elementary teacher, Dorothy Progue, nudged the boy’s foot with hers as a way to get his attention. This otherwise forgettable event turned into a major skirmish as the boy’s mother filed a grievance against Ms. Progue, called for her dismissal and an investigation by Child Protective Services. Three months later the teacher was cleared of any wrongdoing.
An Orange County, California, high school instructor was sued after he lowered the grades of a student who was a discipline problem and constantly tardy to class.
Justin Swidler, a middle school student in Bethlehem, Penn., created a website where he solicited a hit man to have his math teacher, Kathleen Fulmer, killed. The site listed reasons why Ms. Fulmer should die, and it was captioned with a photo of Ms. Fulmer morphing into Adolf Hitler. After being expelled from the Bethlehem Area School District, Justin’s parents sued, not just the school district and principal, but Fulmer, the teacher whom their son wanted killed.
The lawsuit claimed the Swidler’s suffered humiliation, isolation, and severe emotional distress after the threatened attack on the math teacher’s life. Justin’s father was also upset that Justin was unable to get a good recommendation from any teachers at Nitchmann Middle School, and therefore had trouble enrolling at another school.
This litigation dragged on for approximately two and one-half years, and Justin ultimately lost. The principal, frustrated by this burden, took early retirement. Fulmer was so sullied by the experience that she left teaching. Justin’s classmates also lost. Resources that should have been used for education were instead used to defend the school from a lawsuit.
The only possible winners in this case were the lawyers who generated billable hours from the Swidler's, Fulmer, the principal, the school district, and yes, the students.
Thanks to passage of the Teacher Liability Protection Act, teachers and principals can now focus more on educating our children and less on defending themselves from unwarranted lawsuits. Just as importantly, the legislation protects the rights of a student if a teacher physically or sexually abuses him or her.
“This creates both a national and state shield to protect teachers when they do the right thing,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, sponsor of the House bill. “It doesn’t protect anyone if they do the wrong thing, such as violate civil rights, break the law or school policy.”
Rest assured, the legislation in no way promotes corporal punishment. In fact, if paddling crosses the line from a school discipline policy to the actual abuse of a student, the law explicitly preserves the right to seek redress for such conduct in court.
Protecting teachers and principals from frivolous lawsuits makes sense. Defending a lawsuit takes a teacher away from the classroom, and instead places him or her in a conference room of lawyers where very little, if any, teaching occurs.
The overwhelming fact is this: Frivolous lawsuits drain resources that hit not only taxpayers in the wallet, but hurts kids, teachers and the entire education process.
Cora Sue Mach is the executive vice president of Mach Industrial Group, a steel fabricating company, and president of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse Houston.