Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Suing Schools

The Ithaca Voice reported on a case in Vestal, where a teacher was accused of separating a kid's shoulder and the mother's photos of the injury went viral. (At that age, my brother could do that with his shoulder at the drop of a hat, which isn't to say that the kid wasn't injured.) The teacher was exonerated by the DA, who could not find evidence to support the claim.

Lots and lots and lots of people commented that the teacher should be fired, hanged from the nearest tree, etc. But those of us who've worked in and around schools mostly went, "Uh oh."

It happens, of course. Teachers abuse kids and have to be fired. Lawsuits happen, too. I have no objections to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, for example. Some grievances can only be settled in court.

When I googled "number of lawsuits vs. public schools," I found no actual figures, but I did find a slew of sites on "How to Sue a School." You wouldn't think that schools were deep-pocket litigants, but apparently they are deep-pocket enough, because most schools I know annually face a number of suits that affect their bottom lines. This article from 2004 claims that 60 percent of principals back then had faced a legal challenge. I don't have any reason to think that number has dropped.

I firmly believe that there are lawyers—not local, but not far away—whose metier is suing public schools, and who actively seek out clients in the region. They often find suitable clients in the parents of special education students, because it seems particularly easy to find that schools have not completed paperwork accurately, held appropriate numbers of meetings, or otherwise lived up to the letter of the extremely specific laws that guide special education. Suing for compliance issues is easy and common. And the poorly-kept secret is that schools settle lawsuits, however frivolous they might seem, because it's usually cheaper than going to court.

So suing schools is a profitable business. But the constant threat of lawsuits clearly has a dampening effect on schools, thwarting creativity as it takes up time and energy and costs taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars.

Bad stuff happens in schools, and sometimes, where there's smoke, there's fire. Just not always. Sometimes there's just a lawyer blowing on the embers.

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