Thursday, March 20, 2008

I'll sue you!

Last weekend, Joanne Jacobs did a short post on a 15-year-old who is suing his high school because his math teacher woke him up in her class by slapping her open palm on his desk. The fine lad's lawyer called it an assault and battery.

This might strike some as funny and others as ridiculous, but it really is harmful. If there is one area in public education that needs improvement, it's discipline. A major reason for that is that teachers and principals feel like they're walking on eggshells when it comes to dealing with misbehaving students because of the constant threat of lawsuits. This situation is a prime example of that.

In my first couple of years in Warroad, I had two separate incidents in which students did something blatantly wrong, and when I looked at them with obvious displeasure, each of the students said to me, "If you hit me, I'll sue you." Not, "Sorry!" Not, "I won't do it again," but "If you hit me, I'll sue you." Now, I had no intention of hitting either student, but I think this speaks volumes about what these students thought of a teacher's authority. They knew that my options were very limited in dealing with their misbehavior. Nearly all of the worst behaving students in public schools have that mindset.

Part of the reason that I was treated with such blatant defiance was that I was relatively new in the school. I've now been in Warroad for nineteen years, and I've managed to establish a certain reputation, so nothing like that has happened to me since those first couple of years. But I still have more problems than I should have. (When students tell me that I am known in the school for being strict, I can only shake my head in wonder.) I might not have anyone coming out and saying what those two students said, but my worst behaving students still know that there's only so much I can do. The only way a teacher can have real power in dealing with students like this is if they are afraid the teacher might be willing to do something they know he actually isn't supposed to do.

One Warroad teacher, who had the best discipline of any teacher I've known, once told me how he handled a disruptive student. He took the student into a back room, and when they were alone, he got nose to nose with the student and physically threatened him. End of problem. Knowing that teacher as I do, it's safe to say he wasn't bluffing. I have no doubt that the student involved understood that a lawsuit wouldn't deter that teacher. But is that what it should take to have good discipline?

Our nation is the most litigious in the world. We have far more lawyers per capita than almost any other nation on earth; nearly three times as many as Britain, four times as many as Germany, and nearly twenty-five times as many as Japan. No, that is not a misprint--twenty-five times! Do you think there are many kids suing their schools there?

15 Comments:

Blogger Mrs. C said...

As a mom of two special-needs kids, I have a different perspective. I feel the deck is stacked against the PARENT in almost any instance. Just trying to get your kid what he needs on an IEP is such a stinkin' hassle. It's so way easier just to homeschool the child rather than send him and fight this... fight that... get this or that re-evaluated and dicker over which testing should be done when.

The school district has MY tax money,and almost unlimited cash for legal help. If I really wanted to fight for a true "FAPE," it would NOT be free at all. I would have to take out a second mortgage on my house. Even then there are no guarantees I'll get what I want in an IEP.

Oh.

And IEPs are revised ANNUALLY. Is it any wonder I pulled my child and walked away?

I think the kids you're talking about are either bluffing or have some very wealthy parents. More and more, I'm thinking justice only happens to rich folks. Just the cynic in me.

3/20/2008 4:41 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mrs. C., first let me say that although I know we'll never get you specifically, I want to win people LIKE YOU over. And I know that isn't going to happen unless we are able to establish better discipline in our schools. Regardless of whether or not some of those kids threatening to sue are bluffing, the point is that they know teachers are not in a very strong position in dealing with them. That is a major, major problem.

Regarding special education, I can relate to where you're coming from, because my wife was a special needs student who never got any help. They didn't have special ed. back then. (She was once spanked by a substitute in front of her class because she couldn't say her name correctly.) I know that our people in the high school bend over backwards in an effort to accommodate parents. The biggest problem I see in our program is that we end up with a lot of kids in the program whose effort and behavior is miserable. As a result of this, we end up with parents of kids with legitimate problems who don't want their kids in the program. And when they are in the program, guess who ends up getting the most time and attention? Regardless of what their disabilities are--and I recognize that some of those disabilities involve behavior--I think special education should be limited to kids who are willing to try to be successful. If they have behavior issues, they should be trying hard to deal with them, if they are learning disabilities, they should be trying as hard as they can to learn. Then, they can be helped, and special education could be a great program. If not, they don't belong in the program.

3/20/2008 5:32 AM  
Blogger peteandluke said...

I have been told that I have the best classroom management in my school. Yet this year has been the year from Hades for me as far as discipline. I have a 5th period class of sophomores and juniors who are, in the words of the Junior English teacher, "Animals". I'm sorry, but how else to describe them. They say the most inappropriate things, anytime they like. They burp, belch and you know what else. Half of the class has forgotten either pencil, book, paper, or homework. Homework??? I am considering doing away with it since less than a third of the class does it. It has truly been an exasperating situation and I have literally sobbed and wept over this class (not in front of them, but at home in privacy) . I have a discipline log filled with pages and pages of notes on these kids. It takes 3 documentations (detailed) and a call home to parents to get even 1 hour of detention. They need discipline badly, but it is time and work that takes away from grading and planning lessons, which is what I think I was hired to do mostly. I'm pretty sure I'm staying next year, mainly because I am committed to this little community I live in and it seems wasteful of time and fossil fuels to drive 30 minutes to another school. Also, I'm wondering, can it get any worse? Next year has to be better.

Amy P.

3/20/2008 7:09 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Anyone can sue anyone for anything, pretty much. That's just a feature of the legal system.

I agree with Mrs. C that the typical school is stacked heavily against the parent. Complaints about parents on teacher message boards typically amount to "such-and-such parent was mean to me". Teachers have a web of administration to back them up and keep them from suffering punishments, while students have almost no due process until the punishments get rather harsh. Kids have been suspended or expelled for offenses like having over-the-counter tylenol in school.

In many states, the punishment that can be inflicted includes battery. In New Jersey at least, students don't have the right to hear the evidence until the punishment is a suspension more than three days.

As for this case, consider whether, if you were sleeping in the park and someone came up and yelled in your ear. Do you have a case for battery? I'd have to say the answer is that you probably do. If this kid really has suffered permanent hearing loss as he claims, is it overlitigious to sue? When you say it's ridiculous, you're making a factual determination that there was no actual damage, despite having no evidence.

3/20/2008 9:57 AM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

Dennis, you're *right* on that special-needs class thing. No way on earth I would let my children participate in some of those programs for "behaviourally challenged" kids.

That's one of the reasons I'm not in favour of public education being funded by the taxpayer. When I pay my taxes, I feel like I have the RIGHT to use what I paid for. I pay for a road; I ought to be able to drive on it. Police force? If I have a problem with someone breaking in, you bet I'll call and I'll expect a response even if I've called seven times yesterday and you're tired of talking to me.

Maybe you disagree, but I don't feel that you should have the RIGHT to stay in school no matter what you do. With the disability caveat, and even that can have its limits, you know?

3/20/2008 11:52 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Amy, I know exactly how you feel. As I said in one of my comments on homeschooling, if I were a parent walking into my sixth hour American History class at the beginning of this year, I would have been looking for other options.

By the way, regarding my remark about logic getting better as we go north, I wanted you to know that our youngest son now lives in Florida. He is the one everyone in our family constantly refer to as "the smart one."

Crypticlife, I can't flat out say you are wrong, because you are there and I am here. But I absolutely do not see what you are talking about here. I do know that there are many times when administrators defend a teacher to a parent, but then after the parent has left, they go to the teachers and make it clear that they want the problem fixed. I also know that there are times when parents who complain are being completely unreasonable.

You also seem to imply that the deck is stacked in favor of the teacher when it comes to discipline. I don't know anyone who works in a school who would agree with that. I think Amy would agree with me on that one. And I really have trouble buying the idea that someone could have permanent hearing loss due to someone slapping a desk with an open hand.

But the fact that you disagree with me doesn't even bother me. You want to know why? Because Mrs. C. and I finally agree on something. Heck, I'm elated!

3/20/2008 2:32 PM  
Blogger Goader said...

Amy P.--
Near the bottom of this post click on ″Rowdy Class″ and have a listen to one of my classes.

3/20/2008 4:41 PM  
Blogger Chaz said...

In the New York City public school the teacher would have been removed from his classroom and sent to the "rubber room". He would have been charged with corporal punishment for threatening and embarassing the student.

3/20/2008 5:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crypticlife,

If I'm sleeping in the park, I'm pretty sure I'm doing it on my own free time for relaxation. If a student is sleeping in my class, and there is no extenuating circumstance such as the student being obviously ill, it is the same thing as if you or I were sleeping on the job. I fight the battle to wake kids up on a daily basis, and no, my classes aren't boring. I'm also an actress and use a lot of "entertainment" in my classes to try and bring them to life. But students put their heads down and sleep simply because they don't want to put forth the effort, and they know that no one can really do anything to make them stay awake and work. I'm lucky to work in a school with a strong principal who allows us to issue detentions for this, but many students rarely serve them, choosing instead to move on to a Saturday school lab and then out-of-school suspension. Such is the life of a teacher in today's public high schools.

3/21/2008 11:27 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous, Chaz, Goader, and Amy, you are all seeing the same things I'm seeing from the inside, and Mrs. C. sees it from the outside. It frustrates me to no end that our unions--and nobody else for that matter--will even address this issue.

3/21/2008 11:38 AM  
Anonymous daniel simms said...

I can think of two things that would deter most of these seemingly frivolous lawsuits from being brought in the first place. One would be a legal system in which the loser pays for the costs of the suit. The other would be giving the jury even more authority in deciding cases (think jury nullification).

I say seemingly because I agree with what Crypticlife said above. We don't know all the facts and aren't in a position to judge whether the teacher did damage to the student or not. Rumors do tend to travel far and wide.

3/21/2008 4:05 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"If a student is sleeping in my class, and there is no extenuating circumstance such as the student being obviously ill, it is the same thing as if you or I were sleeping on the job."

Believe it or not, this doesn't legally justify assault. Your employer can't legally assail you for sleeping on the job, particularly since there are other reasonable ways to wake you. Moreover, there's the problem of how you know there's no extenuating circumstance. Visual inspection? You can tell if a sleeping person has any illness just by looking at them? I doubt a doctor would say that for certain, and I doubt you're a doctor.

Dennis, I think you're looking at the cases around you -- which is encouraging, since it means schools may go beyond what the law requires in listening to parents.

However, just like not all parents are reasonable, not all administrators are either. And in these cases, discipline is legally stacked very much in favor of the school system.

And try not to get upset by our disagreements. I enjoy your blog, enjoy reading your opinions, and greatly appreciate your openness to discussion.

3/24/2008 11:28 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thanks, Crypticlife, and don't worry, I'm not taking the disagreement too hard. In fact, I'm proud of my accomplishment. I've managed to establish common ground between fundamentalist Christians and atheists: Fermoyle's wrong!

3/24/2008 2:55 PM  
Blogger EHT said...

I'm not really seeing how a hand to the desk in order to wake up a student is assault. I would guess the statute in that particular state makes mention of skin to skin contact and that's why criminal charges probably weren't filed, and why the child's parents have opted for a civil suit. As a parent I think I'd be more concerned as to why my child felt the need to sleep.

It's not the choice I would make as a teacher, but....Over at my place I wrote a post about sleepy students and how I handle the situation.

We have too many other discipline problems in a classroom to really be concerned about the sleepy ones. Their situation can be overcome usually, however, in my experience administrators will do anything to appease a parent especially if that parent even mentions a lawyer. This means that the violent students keep being violent, the filthy mouths keep spewing abuse to teachers and students, and the clothing keeps getting skimpier and skimpier because "those kids have rights."

Some of the kids are actually attending school to get ahead and make something of themselves. Until our school boards and school systems understand that children have to have consequences for their actions and teachers need to have knowledge regarding various strategies to deal with problem children that don't involve sarcastic comments or threatening actions we will continue down the same road.

3/27/2008 3:01 PM  
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