Fear of Litigation
Many school districts and teachers believe that they are constantly under attack by circumstances that are beyond their control. In addition to providing a safe learning environment for students of a community, many educational professionals are being threatened with litigation. Preventative law can be a proactive approach toward eliminating litigation in school districts. Also, parent involvement in local school districts can encourage positive relationships between parents, students, teachers and principals.
Keywords Educational Law; First Amendment; Litigation; Weedsport Central School District; No Child Left Behind Act; Parent; Public Schools; Preventive Law; Standardized Tests; Wisniewski, Aaron
Many school districts and teachers believe that they are constantly under attack by circumstances that are beyond their control. In addition to providing a safe learning environment for students of a community, many educational professionals are being threatened with litigation. Over the years, there have been many cases focusing on issues such as sex, racial discrimination, and freedom of speech.
Harris Interactive Market Research (2004) was contracted on behalf of Common Good to conduct a survey on litigation in public schools. The organization was charged with exploring how regulations, due process and lawsuits affect the way that public school principals and teachers perform their jobs. Some of the specific areas that they were asked to target include:
• Overall job satisfaction among teachers and principals.
• Their concerns and awareness of possible legal challenges.
• How legal anxiety affects their attitudes toward their jobs.
• How legal anxiety impacts their teaching and managing.
• Possible solutions to improve the overall quality of education while reducing the potential influence of legal overload in education (p. 4).
The firm contacted 500 K-12 public school teachers and 301 K-12 public school principals between September 18 and October 6, 2003. The researchers spoke to the participants via the telephone and interviewed each person for about 15 minutes. After the researchers conducted the first set of interviews, they reviewed the data and realized that additional questions were raised regarding the degree to which fear of legal challenge is an issue for educators and how much this concern affects their attitudes and behaviors as educators.
As a result, the decision was made to follow-up by re-interviewing all of the respondents by asking them a subset of questions from the original survey in order to gain a better understanding of the educators' views. Two hundred and thirty teachers and 167 principals were successfully re-interviewed. The second set of interviews occurred between October 24 and November 2, 2003. The data for the teachers were weighted by age, gender, education, race and ethnicity, region and urbanicity in order to ascertain that their proportions were representative of the population. Data for principals were weighted by type of school, gender, race and region.
Significant findings from the study were as follows:
• Most educators agreed that the current legal climate has resulted in a phenomenon that could be considered "defensive teaching."
• While educators are generally satisfied with their jobs, more than half were concerned about the risks of legal challenges. Such concerns have increased over the years.
• Consistent with their overall level of concern about legal challenge, the findings show that for significant proportions of teachers and principals, concern about legal challenge is the same or greater than their concern about compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act and results on standardized tests.
• A majority of the educators are somewhat worried that a decision they make will be challenged legally.
• This concern and fear about legal challenges has caused a majority of the educators to engage in a variety of protective behaviors.
Experience with or Knowledge of Lawsuits or Legal Challenges
• While the majority of educators have never been sued personally, significant minorities of teachers and principals know other educators who have been sued by students or parents. While this may not be widespread, principals are more vulnerable to these situations than teachers.
Impact of the Current Environment
• The potential for increased legal challenges and legal mandates have hurt many educators' ability to do their jobs.
• Consistent with the previous findings, majorities of teachers and principals believe fewer laws; rules and legal mandates would help them and would improve the quality of education and discipline.
• Fear of legal challenge has affected the willingness of many educators to perform a variety of activities.
Reasons for an Increased Legal Environment
• Educators unanimously agreed that a bureaucratic mindset was a main reason for an increased legal environment. Many also felt that distrust of teachers was a major contributing factor.
• However, some aspects of education as a profession appear to need attention, especially as they relate to retaining good professionals.
• There is strong support for a variety of solutions, many of which would shift the balance of power back into the hands of educators rather than having the law loom over every decision made and action taken. Reducing the potential to legally challenge daily management decisions, and replacing lawsuits or legal hearings with oversight by a school-based committee, are viewed as possibly being helpful in improving the quality of education.
Context for Examining the Current Environment
• Despite their concerns over the threat of legal challenges, educators have high levels of job satisfaction and believe they are providing quality education.
• Since starting in education, many teachers and principals believe their ability to provide a quality education or maintain order in the classroom has worsened or remained the same.
• Teachers and principals perceive that students and parents view them as legitimate authority figures. They also think that students have at least some knowledge of their potential legal rights and are willing to exercise these rights.
• When it comes to the administration of discipline in schools, teachers and principals have different views about the degrees of fairness and strictness. Principals, perhaps because they have a larger role in shaping the discipline policy in a school, have more positive views than teachers of how discipline is administered in their schools.
Court Cases Involving Public Schools
Are these concerns valid, and does the public school system have to worry about potential lawsuits? Yes, the concerns are valid. The number of lawsuits filed against teachers and school districts is on the rise. For example, let's consider the court case, Weedsport Central School District v. Wisniewski.
Weedsport Central School District v. Wisniewski
Ardia (2007) provided background information on how this court case started. Aaron Wisniewski was an eighth grader in the Weedsport Central School District. He sent an instant message to a group of his friends, and the message included a "buddy icon" that Aaron has designed. The icon was a picture of a pistol firing at a man's head with the words, "Kill, Mr. VanderMolen." Mr. VanderMolen was one of Aaron's teachers.
For three weeks, Aaron used the icon on his avatar as he corresponded with 15 of his friends. He never sent the instant messages during school hours or to school...
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