Never far from school halls: the lawsuit

For some students and their parents, a good lawyer can be as important as good grades.

Consider the Alabama father who sued his daughter's principal in May after she failed to make the cheerleading team. Or the Oklahoma mother who dragged her children's high school into court after teachers required students to grade one another's assignments and then read the results aloud.

Stories like those have teachers and principals around the country wondering if their decisions made in classrooms may be challenged in courtrooms.

Schools have always been fertile ground for lawsuits over religious observance and free speech. But educators say the volume of suits is on the rise, forcing them to siphon time and money away from learning.

One-quarter of elementary school principals surveyed by the American Tort Reform Association in 1999 had faced a lawsuit or out-of-court settlement in the previous two years. Respondents said legal actions put a stop to such things as dodgeball, which could cause injury, or hugging students when they needed support.

Not all observers agree that the situation is dire. Lehigh University school-law professor Perry Zirkel says the number of lawsuits isn't necessarily increasing, with the exception of suits involving disabled students.

Policies invite lawsuits

A number of factors may be linked to the frequency of suits. For one, aggressive zero-tolerance discipline policies that punish or expel students after only one offense invite lawsuits, say some observers. With the stakes so high, parents are more likely to bring lawyers along to student appeal hearings, says Julie Vogt of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

Many schools are also drug-testing more students. First limited to student athletes, drug testing in the past five years has expanded to include those participating in any extracurricular activity. That means up to 80 percent of students at affected schools may qualify for - and eventually challenge - the tests.

Privacy is another flash point for conflict. This fall, the United States Supreme Court is likely to hear arguments in the case of the suburban Tulsa, Okla., high school students who graded classmates' assignments.

The mother of three students says sharing grades in class violates federal student-privacy laws. Educational records cannot be released without parental consent.

Whatever the volume, litigation is certainly on the minds of educators like Edward Wiggins, principal of Carver Middle School in Raymond, Miss., who has been sued four times in the past 10 years.

In one case, students hurt themselves off campus after cutting class without permission. "We did what we're supposed to do, but we're still held accountable for the child. Those are the kind of cases that make us pull the hair out of our head," Mr. Wiggins says.

Even though none of the cases ever went to court, Wiggins says he spent hours gathering records and meeting with lawyers.

Simply bringing a lawsuit, of course, isn't the same as winning in court. Most students who sue claiming their rights were deprived when they didn't make a sports team, for example, can expect their cases to be thrown out of court.

In fact, schools usually wind up winning, particularly those that have written policies, says Charles Russo, a professor at Ohio's University of Dayton School of Education.

"To the extent that school districts are doing their homework, those are the schools that tend to prevail," Professor Russo says. "If you have a policy in place, you're going to win."

Increasingly, he adds, "students are checking their rights at the schoolhouse gate," noting that courts have seemed more willing in the past two decades to side with schools.

Preventive action

Many schools take preventive action to limit their potential liability. One Broward County, Fla., elementary school runs criminal background checks on all parents before they are allowed to be volunteers.

Julie Underwood, general counsel of the National School Board Association, says school districts also need policies specific enough to guide teachers but not so broad that they wind up targeting the wrong students.

Ms. Underwood points to the Georgia middle school that suspended a sixth-grader last year for two weeks after she brought a Tweety bird key chain to school. The key chain violated the school district's weapons policy.

Help may come from Congress, where both houses approved bills this year that would offer teachers and schools protections from suits. President Bush has indicated he will probably approve such a measure as part of his education reform plan.

Texas already offers teachers immunity from most negligence claims, except in cases of excessive use of force or discipline.

Lois Berlin, principal of George Mason Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., says she would appreciate added protection. "People go into teaching because it's a profession they aspire to," Ms. Berlin says. "If they think they can lose their shirt, that the school can lose its foundation, that's a pretty scary idea."

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