ARLINGTON, Va. -- When you plan for anything in a school today, your first consideration is the "L" word. No, we're not talking language arts or even liberal arts, we're talking the threat of litigation.
It hovers over every U.S. public school, taking professional time from teaching and learning, costing the taxpayers dearly and affecting our students' achievement.
Furthermore, there is a growing and critical shortage of applicants for principals' jobs across the country. Why aren't more people applying? Stress is a major factor.
When a principal spends up to 20 percent of his or her time on the job keeping up with the legal decisions, negotiating with parents, students and staff and documenting nearly every action -- that's stress.
A recent survey of more than 500 principals showed that nearly 65 percent reported that litigation in schools has increased in the past 10 years.
Recent Supreme Court decisions -- including one that holds schools accountable for student-to-student sexual harassment and another that makes them responsible for full-time nurses for all students who need them -- have exacerbated the situation.
Plight of principals
Principals often find themselves darned if they do and darned if they don't. For example, a school board sets up a zero-tolerance policy for weapons. It states clearly that any student who brings a weapon to school -- whether it's a plastic butter knife or a loaded handgun -- must be suspended.
Then a child accidentally brings a Boy Scout knife to school -- it has been left in his backpack from the meeting the night before. The principal, acting on orders from the school board, suspends the child. The newspapers make a laughingstock of the school. The parents are outraged.
However, if that child had taken the knife out and poked it into another student's eye at school, the school would be in legal trouble.
Principals honestly lament the freedom they've lost to simply hug a child anymore. As a recent survey conducted by the American Tort Reform Association points out, physical contact has either been terminated or modified in more than half of the schools surveyed.
A hug-free zone
A Kentucky principal told me how very concerned she and her staff are about touching students. Even when offering sympathy or calming a child down, she said, "A lot of thought is given in every situation before you can react."
Many principals say that the only time they will hug a child is in the hallway. However, perhaps the most troubling part of the litigation problem is time it takes away from the work of running the school.
For example, a principal in Washington state spent more than 100 hours one year working with the parents of one learning-disabled student when they differed with the school's educational approach.
This is a lot of time for someone who oversees the education of 500 students and manages a staff of 40.
In Missouri, a middle-school principal explained that to protect herself and her school from lawsuits, she: keeps a log of every phone call; writes up every parent meeting; asks staff involved in meetings to submit reports as well; interviews witnesses involved in any injury; reads back the witnesses' statements to them; fills out state and federal forms for any weapon brought to school; reports any fights to the police; and completes accident reports for every scraped knee.
More recently, this principal has spent an inordinate amount of time getting to the bottom of a rising tide of sexual harassment allegations from students reporting on their peers.
Most of these never meet the tough new federal definition of harassment, but all are taken very seriously and use many hours of administrators and students' time.
The National Association of Elementary School Principals found in a survey of its membership last year that few principals were actually named in civil suits.
Of those who were, nearly a third saw the case dropped, about a quarter had out-of-court settlements and the rest were resolved in the principal's favor.
Virtually no judgments were found against principals. This leads us to believe that most of the suits shouldn't have been brought in the first place.
Time consuming matters
Nevertheless, those administrators had to go through the emotional drain and personal anguish of legal proceedings. Their schools must have been negatively affected, possibly sides were taken. Their jobs were no doubt in jeopardy.
And, worse yet, professional time and talent were lost, children didn't get the attention they deserved and taxpayers paid the bills.
I know that this information won't change our litigious society, but I do hope it will provide some perspective. The public needs to know what's happening in our schools and with their tax dollars.
Vincent L. Ferrandino is executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. He wrote this for the Knight-Ridder News Service.
Pub Date: 9/27/99