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How to protect yourself from lawsuits?

How to protect yourself from lawsuits?

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Cover Your Behind

By Jill Jenkins

                        Many sources have said that Officer Darren Wilson would have been safer if he had been wearing a camera that could have recorded everything that transpired that night, but he was not wearing a camera, so he only has his testimony against the testimony of anyone else witnessed the events.  Many teachers complain about cameras in hallways, but to be perfectly honest, every classroom had a camera or every teacher wore a camera on his/her person, the teacher would have hard evidence if a situation arose that teacher’s conduct was in question. When I began my teaching career, a more experienced teacher advised me to never be alone in a room with a student without the door open.  However, the fear of armed intruders has had administrators advising teachers to keep their doors closed at all times.  How do teachers protector themselves against a student who might wrongfully accuse them of inappropriate action?

            In a recent court case in Albany, California, chemistry teacher Peggy Carlock and Albany High School are being sued because Bowen Bethards, 17, and his mother, Laureen are unhappy with the C+ her son received.  Laureen contends the teacher, Peggy Carlock bullied her son. According to the parent, the student had 106% of the possible points at the beginning of the quarter when the student was assigned to participate in a lab.  The parent took the student to court to his brother’s adoption hearing, on the day of the lab.  The teacher offered the student to make-up the lab, but on the day the student came in to make up the lab, the teacher was absent.  The teacher gave the student a second opportunity to make up the lab by correcting the other student’s lab reports, but the parent claims the teacher did not give the student a rubric so he was unable to do complete the task.  Finally the student failed the final exam and the teacher refused to allow the student to retake the test.  The parent felt this was unfair, because her son will have a difficult time getting into the college of his choice because of his grade.  The school offered to change his grade to a “B” excusing him from the lab, but refused to allow him to retake the test because that would not be fair to other students.  The parent wanted the “A” grade so she sued. 

            This is a difficult situation, but if the teacher clearly states that students will not be allowed to retakes exams in her open disclosure and the clearly states how labs are to made up, perhaps the parent might not have sued.  On the other hand, one could argue the student was given two opportunities to make up the lab.  Furthermore, why did the student need to go to court with his mother?  The legal situation did not even concern him, so why was he absent when he was aware that there was an important lab in his chemistry class that day; however, when a student are absent he/she still needs an opportunity to make up the missing work. The teacher gave him that opportunity.  If the teacher was sick on the particular day the boy chose to make it up, perhaps he could have set up another date. Furthermore, the teacher gave him an alternative activity, an opportunity to grade the other students’ lab reports (most of us may question the validity of that particular method of making up a lab), but his still did not complete it.  Finally, most of us would argue that he took the final exam and failed, he really should not even pass the class, because he has not learned the material.  The teacher and the school are being generous with the student. Is this parent being unreasonable?

            Maybe, but this is why it is important to document every phone call that you make to a parent with pertinent information of what was discussed.  Document every correction you make to a student whether it is moving his seat, taking him into the hall and chatting with him, or having a parent-teacher conference.  You may never need your notes, but if a situation arises and the administration in your building ask how you had been helping a student, you have a document filled with facts that may help them or if the parents bring in a lawyer (this rarely happens, but if it does you need to be ready) you have clear concise information about all of your interactions with the student and the parent.

             In another instance according to National Public Radio, a West Virginia Parent sued a teacher because her student did not receive credit for a project she turned in late, thus causing her to get a “B” for the course instead of an “A.” The teacher had told the student that this project could not be turned in late, but this particular student went on a school excused activity on the due date and submitted it one day later.  The teacher documented that she had told the students they could turn it in early, but it would not be accepted late.  The student needed to understand that the rule applied to her.  The parents felt that the teacher did not have the authority to make such a rule, because the district policy clearly stated that when a student was absent they had an equal number of days to complete the missing work.  As teachers we all know that the end of the quarter eventually comes and teachers have deadlines to complete their grades as well, so by the end of the quarter it is not unreasonable to expect an absolute cut-off for some work. It might be wise to put information that a particular project cannot be submitted late on your webpage, on the paper with instructions about the project and/or in an email to the parents and students.  The more proof you have that you communicated this information to both the parents and student the better chance you have of not being sued.

            One mistake or perceived mistake can destroy a teacher’s career and financial situation.  When I began teaching, a student put an incendiary device into a commode in the boys’ restroom.  The device blew up shattering the toilet and flooding the restroom.  As the culprit left the restroom, a teacher grabbed the young man and pushed him against the wall, holding him until the administration arrived.  The parents sued the teacher who was not a member of the teaching association and had no insurance to cover such law suit.  The district did not back the teacher as it is a standard rule in that school that teachers cannot touch students.  The teacher not only lost his job, but because the parents sued him personally, he lost his house, his retirement savings and ended in bankruptcy.  It is not a bad idea to make sure you have insurance either through a teaching association or that you purchase on your own.  You can never be too cautious.

            Some people will tell you that as a teacher, you need to keep the children safe, act prudently in any situation and follow the behavior guidelines of the school district.  That is all true, but I think you need to make sure that you document everything.  That you publish all of your rules and procedures both on your web-page and through letters or emails and save copies.  Make sure you have records of interactions with parents and students.  I keep all of my students’ assignments until the end of the quarter both in the students’ portfolios and in baskets.  If a student or a parent accuses me of losing their son/daughter’s assignments, I welcome them to go through both the baskets and the portfolio’s to find them.  Most of the time, the students finds a “no name” paper, claims it is his and the argument ends.

            When does a teacher have time for all of this, if you create a log on your computer that you update at the end of each day, it will become a valuable resource in the event you are ever accused of not helping a child, or if the administration is looking for documentation to enroll a non-performing student in a special education program.  More importantly, you will be protecting yourself.  In the event a parent ever suggests that they will be talking to their attorney.  You should no longer speak to that parent.  All communication needs to go through the administration or the school districts’ attorney.  This is when your detailed notes on your interaction with this student will be invaluable to both the attorney and the administration.  Don’t worry too much.  In forty years of teaching, I was never sued.  Some may have threatened it, but it never happened.  The truth is it only takes one unjust accusation to destroy your career, so please cover your behind.

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