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A teacher fights back against unruly kids

As educators face more abuse, some are turning to courts to restore order in classroom

By D.J. BurroughContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2004



PHOENIX

Elizabeth Anne Moore, a reading teacher at a west Phoenix high school, has a new ending and a new title for the 350-page book she has written about being an educator. She'll call it, "Violated No More."

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This week, Ms. Moore won a court injunction against a 15-year-old student who had been harassing her in class - including, by her account, telling her daily to "go [expletive] myself."

In an era when teachers often have little recourse to deal with unruly students, Moore decided to use the legal system to restore order in the classroom - and her life. It worked: A justice of the peace ordered the student not to have any contact with her on or off school grounds.

It's an unusual tale of a teacher fighting back and offers a look into how difficult it can be for educators to protect themselves from abusive students at a time when many schools have "no touch" policies and teachers are afraid to discipline kids for fear of lawsuits.

From 1997 to 2001, teachers were the victims of approximately 1.3 million nonfatal crimes at school, according to a survey published by the National Center for Education Statistics.

While no hard statistics exist on the number of teachers who have sought legal protection from students, education experts believe that although such lawsuits are still rare they are on the upswing. Public school educators around the country are turning to the courts in a final attempt to protect themselves from children who can't be kept in check by the existing disciplinarian rules.

"It shows just how far things have gone," said Nancy Udell, a lawyer with Common Good, a nonprofit group that is lobbying for legislation that would give teachers greater latitude in meting out classroom punishment. "The days when the teacher could give a stern look to a student and have that child sit up and take notice are clearly gone."

Indeed, handling an unruly child was once simply a matter of sending him to the principal's office for a paddling and possible suspension, but the era of corporal punishment is long over. The vast majority of public schools now preclude school employees from touching any students, whether it's to give them a friendly hug or to force them to sit.

In November, Philadelphia teacher David Pitone, established "Teachers and Students for School Civility" after failing to secure a court order to eject unruly students from his classroom. He had sent the students to the principal's office; they were promptly sent back.

Since the mid-1970s, handing out a suspension or expulsion has become difficult. In a landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that students were protected by the 14th Amendment and couldn't be denied a public education without due process. In the New York school system, the form required to start a suspension is 100 pages long.

In Moore's case, she first complained to school officials on March 18. The student was placed in a three-day after-school detention program, but the behavior continued. On April 7, the same day she filed for the injunction, Moore filed a new complaint with the school and the student received a five-day suspension and was not allowed back into her classroom when he returned to campus.

"I am sexually harassed and abused by his vulgar language and unable to protect my other students from him," Moore wrote in her complaint. "His father tells me he cannot control [his son]."

Teachers who don't have the support of parents, the administration, or the district have nowhere else to turn but the courts, said Alice Finn Gartell, an attorney for the Arizona Education Association - a teacher lobby - and author of "Violence and Threats in the Classroom."

"When things become impossible for a teacher they have to count on the administration for support," Ms. Gartell said. "Sometimes it's there and sometimes it's not."

It's not unheard of for school administrators to ask teachers not to report assaults or threats. "There are many instances when school employees were told not to call the police because they didn't want a bad reputation," she said.

Teachers and principals alike are fearful of taking disciplinary action against a student because of legal reprisals from angry parents. A recent Harris Interactive poll found that 77 percent of principals and 61 percent of teachers "avoid decisions that they think are right simply because they might be challenged legally."

Even though schools most often win when challenged in court, Udell said, the threat of a lawsuit has affected how schools and teachers mete out punishment in the classroom.

"It's a huge pendulum swing and we have to do something to come back the other way," she said.

Educators had hoped to get help from President Bush in 2002, when he signed, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Teacher Protection Act - which says that K-12 school employees are immune from liability for injuring a student. The immunity only applies if the injury occurs while the employee is engaged in "efforts to control, discipline, expel, or suspend a student or maintain order."

Teachers feel that the law doesn't do enough to shield them from frivolous lawsuits and provides no funding for mounting a legal defense.

The student's father, Reyes Cavazos, said that his son missed the hearing because he wasn't where he was supposed to be to get a ride to court. He ascribed his son's misbehavior to growing pains, but said he deserved whatever punishment that the court ordered.

"He's a growing child," Cavazos said. "He's going through the typical teenage years. You know, he has good days and bad days."

Moore has received widespread support from teachers throughout the state.

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