When students get hostile, teachers go to court

More educators sue pupils, as they discover their reputations are being maligned on the Web.

By any measure, Ian Lake's Web site was crude and unkind. On it, the Milford, Utah, high-schooler is alleged to have called his principal "the town drunk" and peppered 49 people with various profanities.

The response, in many ways, was expected: The pink-and-green-haired teen was expelled and now faces charges of criminal libel.

Yet the maligned principal took matters a step further. He filed a suit of his own, claiming Ian had defamed him. The suit is ongoing.

In an era of increasing litigiousness, he's one of a growing number of educators willing to sue students who defame their characters or credentials. Now, the rise of the Web has given disgruntled students a way to broadcast their vitriol more widely. And mounting concerns about violence in schools - especially since Columbine - have made teachers and school officials more sensitive to all kinds of threats.

"Some educators are beginning to fight back in filing lawsuits against youths, parents, and in some cases, school districts," says Melinda Anderson, spokeswoman of the National Education Beleaguered teachers hit students with lawsuits

Association. "There are some reports of teachers turning the table, and it basically pertains if the allegations are, true or false, devastating to a teacher's career."

Other cases have also brought national attention to the trend in the past few years, says NEA attorney Michael Simpson.

*Teresa Robertz, a first-year Spanish teacher in Carlton, Minn., sued a student who taped marijuana under her desk and called authorities. With help from the Minnesota Education Association, in 1997 she forced a $2,000 settlement - the maximum under state law.

*After students accused longtime teacher Dan Domenigoni of inappropriate touching, he enlisted the help of the Oregon Education Association to sue them and their parents for defamation. Mr. Domenigoni won $70,000 and an apology in the case in 1994.

*Two years ago, Theodore Brown sued two math 101 students for $100 million, alleging they humiliated him in front of other students by abusing him verbally. He also said one complained to his supervisors at Savannah Technical Institute, which resulted in disciplinary action.

The Web has added a new dimension to the issue of teacher defamation, taking what were once lunch-table conversations or clandestine notes, and making them available to everyone.

"It's very common in my business to have administrators and teachers claim libel or slander, and the Web has created a more powerful tool," says Bill Coats, a Tacoma, Wash., lawyer who represents school districts.

A Bethlehem, Pa., student, for example, was expelled and sued in 1998 because of a threatening site that called for violence. And the American Civil Liberties Union is now defending San Francisco City College students in a suit by Daniel Curzon-Brown. Students reviewed the teacher on the Web, calling him "pompous" and rating him as one of the 10 worst teachers there.

For educators, the rewards of winning a lawsuit may not be worthwhile, says Perry Zirkel, professor of education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.

"I've heard from frustrated teachers or educators who wanted to sue a student for one or more reasons," Professor Zirkel says. "I generally advise against it."

One reason is money. Students are generally considered "judgment proof," because they have no assets of their own.

And while every state except New Hampshire has some kind of law that holds parents liable for their kids' actions, the NEA says, they also severely limit the amount of money that can be recovered. Although the caps vary, they average about $2,500, says Mr. Simpson. There are a few states, like Georgia and Maryland, with $10,000 limits, and Texas allows as much as $15,000.

Awards can skyrocket, however, if a victim can prove parental negligence.

In a 1995 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a $170,000 jury verdict against parents who took their fourth-grade special-ed student off medication before he attacked his teacher.

The other major reason that many teachers are often discouraged from suing is that taking legal action can sometimes damage their reputation. Even if they win, pursuing such lawsuits could lead peers to think they have short fuses or a penchant for extreme reactions.

"It may not be worth it in terms of how you're perceived in the educational community," says Zirkel.

Besides, with frank exchanges seen as a crucial part of education, the line between criticism and defamation can be difficult to draw. "There's a relationship between teacher and student, and part of the educational process is having that relationship," says Mr. Coats. "One of the reasons we get so upset about these cases is that there's an abuse of that relationship."

Adds Zirkel: "We can each criticize each other and, unless you can prove malice, we allow that defense. We don't want to have a chilling effect on students."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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