While schoolchildren often worry about fitting in with their peers, teachers are becoming more and more concerned each school year with the threat of lawsuits. In fact, a survey by the American Federation of Teachers shows that liability protection ranks among the top three concerns teachers want their unions to address. Thankfully, a bill in the U.S. Senate, “The Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Liability Protection Act” (S. 316), will help ease teachers’ concerns and allow them to focus on educating our children, rather than the threat of litigation.
Many lawsuits against teachers are completely frivolous. For instance, a girl in Ohio sued her school and 11 teachers for $6 million after they gave her failing grades for missing more than the maximum number of days allowed.1 She felt this hurt her chances of getting into college, receiving scholarships, and getting a good job.
It is difficult to measure the exact increase in litigation against teachers because most school districts attempt to keep such records confidential and many records are sealed to protect the privacy of minors. However, at the country’s third largest insurer of teachers, Forrest T. Jones Inc., the number of teachers purchasing liability insurance has increased 25 percent in the past five years.2 Most teachers unions offer up to $1 million in liability coverage, yet some smaller unions are beginning to offer even larger packages in an effort to attract more members. For example, the Texas State Teachers Association provides $6 million in liability insurance.
Senator Judd Gregg (N.H.), co-sponsor of S. 316 stated, “the most common concern I’ve heard from teachers for years is that they’re concerned about litigation and being sued within the parameters of their job.”3 With their minds distracted by thoughts of litigation, teachers cannot fully concentrate on their lesson plans, and as a result children suffer.
“Teachers have learned they have to be extremely careful – and I think that’s changed to the detriment of children,” claims Jeanne Adams, professor at California State University Northridge, College of Education.4 Students have to endure disruptive classrooms because teachers cannot discipline troublemakers. Even worse, teachers hesitate before helping students in need. According to an American Tort Reform Association survey, 15 percent of principals claim to have banned all contact between teachers and students simply out of fear of lawsuits. Furthermore, the activities available to children are more limited today due to legal concerns. According to the survey, 65 percent of principals have ended or changed school programs because of this problem.5
“People will sue much quicker and for much less of a circumstance than ever before. Everyone has to be litigation conscious,” claims J.W. Smith, the director of the department of sports administration for the Chicago Public Schools.6
Litigation in schools affects more than just teachers and students. The price of lawsuits affects everyone in the community. The majority of most school budgets are paid for by local taxes. Small school districts can pay anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000 a year in legal fees, while larger districts may have costs up to $100,000.7 Not only could this money be better spent on upgrading school resources and textbooks, but it comes directly from the taxpayers. When confronted with a large lawsuit, the easiest solution to pay for it is to raise taxes. Residents of Kenwood, Oklahoma found their property tax tripled as a result of a judgment against their school district.8
The Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Liability Protection Act will help reduce the number of teacher lawsuits (S. 316). The bill protects teachers from civil liability for actions committed while fulfilling the duties of their profession, so long as they act in conformity with state law and school rules. In addition, it will protect teachers from paying punitive damages, unless the teacher’s actions were willful, criminal, or a conscious flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed. Any damages teachers have to pay will be proportional to the amount of damage for which they are responsible.
Frivolous lawsuits force school boards to spend our tax dollars on lawyers rather than education. Our children are being deprived of a traditional schoolyard experience as schools remove playground equipment or eliminate activities altogether, and underpaid teachers spend their hard-earned dollars on liability insurance instead of a better life for their families. The Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Liability Protection Act returns the classroom to the teachers, the schoolyards to our children, and our tax dollars to education, not litigation.
1 Donna J. Robb, “Student Fails Over Failing Grades,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 8, 1999.
2 Jessica Portner, “Fearful Teachers Buy Liability Insurance,” Education Week, March 29, 2000.
3 James Vaznis, “School Discipline in the Spotlight,” Concord Monitor, February 20, 2001.
4 Brad Smith, “Educators plagued by fears of liability,” Ventura County Star, September 17, 2000.
5 Mary Ann Zehr, “Threat of Lawsuits A Burden on Principals, Poll Says,” Education Week, September 15, 1999.
6 Megan O’Matz, “Four Charged as Officials get Serious about Hazing,” Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1999.
7 Education Law Association.
8 Jann Clark, “Property tax triples in Kenwood,” Tulsa World, December 12, 2000.