Imagine the following scenarios:
1) A paraprofessional in your classroom is trying to calm an agitated student when suddenly the student throws his books across the room, turns over his desk, and starts hitting the paraprofessional. You take the students arms and walk him into the timeout room. The student struggles, curses, and screams that youre a child abuser and that his parents will sue you. The next morning the principal calls you and tells you that a policeman is in his office to take a report from you regarding a possible incident of child abuse. What can you do to protect yourself from this false allegation?
2) You hear a fight starting outside your classroom. Two students who are engaged in an argument begin to push and shove each other. You tell the students to break it up and report to their next class. One agrees but the other throws a punch at the other student. You grab the student that is continuing the confrontation and lead him away. The student snarls at you, "Get your hands off me, I have my rights." Have you violated his rights?
3) One of your students attends a general education classroom for art and music. Because of the aggressive nature of the student, goals have been included on his IEP addressing his frequent outbursts of anger. The IEP team determines that he will be mainstreamed in a few classes; however, the principal believes that, because of confidentiality requirements, the general education teacher should not be told of the students aggressive tendencies. One day the students attacks and injures a student in his art class. Can you be sued for the incident?
4) Your emotional/behavioral disorders (EBD) class is in the gymnasium for a game of basketball. A student office worker comes in to the gym and says you have a phone call in the office. Although there are no adults in the area, the students seem to be involved in their game so you believe it is safe to leave. You ask the office worker to watch your class while you get your call. You go to the office and take the call. While on the phone the student worker runs into the office shouting there has been a fight in the gym. You run to the gym and find one of your students lying on the ground,
unconscious and bleeding. What is your liability?
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? If they do, it is not surprising. Incidents like these happen in schools every day. These scenarios were taken from actual events reported in due process hearings or court cases. If you were the teacher in these situations would you find yourself testifying or being cross-examined in a court of law? If so, were your actions legal? Can you be sued? What is the extent of your liability? Can you be ordered to pay damages? These questions have answers that either appear directly in the law or can be extrapolated from existing laws.
The purpose of this article is to provide some answers through a brief review of the law regarding teacher liability for student injury and misconduct. Following the legal review, I will present a few examples of liability cases involving students with behavioral disorders. Finally, I will offer suggestions for minimizing liability problems in school settings. Following this article, Table 1 will offer possible answers to the scenerios that opened this article. Readers are cautioned that definitive legal answers regarding similar scenarios do not exist because all cases depend on the specific facts of the case. In situations involving the possibility of liability a school attorney should be consulted.
In the past few years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of lawsuits filed on behalf of students with disabilities seeking compensation for injuries while at school. These suits usually are filed against the schools and school personnel (Pitasky, 1995). Typically, these cases involve injuries, either physical or emotional, that occur either accidentally or intentionally. In such suits, plaintiffs (the persons bringing the action) usually seek some form of monetary awards for the injury. These awards may take the form of compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are compensation for actual losses (e.g. medical bills, lost wages, court costs) while punitive damages are monetary awards to punish the defendants (i.e. persons being sued) for wrongful actions and to deter such actions in the future (Fisher, Schimmel, & Kelly, 1995).
Courts have acknowledged that schools cannot guarantee the safety of all students (Mawdsley, 1993). Schools officials and school personnel, however, may have legal liability when a student is injured either by a deliberate action or negligence by a teacher. Usually student injury suits involve tort claims of negligence.