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Jury Awards Ky. Teacher Nearly $34,000 In Lawsuit Against Student

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A Kentucky teacher who won a $34,000 jury award after she sued a disruptive student for making death threats against her has drawn national attention for her legal counterattack on classroom disorder.

Frances Cook, until recently a high school Spanish teacher in the Campbell County district, filed a lawsuit last year after what she called a "nightmare" 1993-94 school year. Junior Andy Bray made frequent references to murder during class and doodled drawings that included women with daggers slashing through their bodies, Ms. Cook said.

The last straw came at the beginning of the 1994-95 academic year, she said. Though Mr. Bray was no longer in her class, he delivered a note urging his "disciples" to continue a campaign of disruption that would drive her "over the edge," the lawsuit claimed.

Last month, a Campbell County jury ordered Mr. Bray, 18, to pay Ms. Cook $8,700 for emotional distress and medical costs and $25,000 in punitive damages for "oppressive" and "malicious" conduct. His lawyer said Mr. Bray is considering an appeal.

Ms. Cook's case represents a growing trend of teachers who are turning to the courts for greater protection from student threats. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995.)

Ms. Cook and her lawyer have heard from television newsmagazine shows and newspaper reporters from as far away as Britain who were interested in her story.

Ms. Cook said last week the award sends the message that students must take greater responsibility for classroom misbehavior.

"I don't want anyone to have to endure what I endured the past two years," said Ms. Cook, who retired from Campbell County High School this year because of the stress from her ordeal. "The respect level for teachers, especially in the last 10 years, has just declined horribly."

During the 1993-94 school year, Mr. Bray allegedly made several references to killing Ms. Cook but later claimed he was only joking, according to her lawyer, Philip Taliaferro.

The lawsuit claimed, among other things, that he frequently yelled out "matar," the Spanish word for murder, during class.

By August of 1994, Ms. Cook was relieved she would no longer have Mr. Bray in her classroom, then discovered the note from him urging her students to continue the disruption.

An assistant principal gave Mr. Bray 40 minutes' detention for the note. Ms. Cook filed her lawsuit soon after.

RossJulson, superintendent of the Campbell County district, said that at the time of the incidents, the district was reluctant to remove disruptive students from class. Since Mr. Julson became superintendent last year, the district has taken a more aggressive approach, he said.

Once district officials learned about the note, he added, they suspended Mr. Bray and began expulsion proceedings. The student withdrew from school and finished his studies at home.

Ms. Cook won a restraining order last fall requiring that the student stay 1,000 feet away from her. She also filed a criminal complaint against Mr. Bray in juvenile court, charging that he made terroristic threats against her. Mr. Bray consented to a program for first-time offenders.

After a four-day trial of Ms. Cook's civil lawsuit last month jurors ruled in her favor, although the award was less than the several million dollars Mr. Taliaferro had sought.

Tim Nolan, Mr. Bray's lawyer, said his client was not giving interviews.

During the trial last month, two teachers testified on his behalf that he was a smart student and had not been a disciplinary problem. Mr. Nolan said Mr. Bray meant no harm by his actions and has denied threatening Ms. Cook.

Mr. Bray "was guilty of clowning and disruptive behavior, but I guess the jury got mixed up and thought they should rule for the plaintiff," Mr. Nolan said. "Maybe the jury felt they were striking some blow for teachers in general, but this case has gone beyond the facts."

Idaho school districts have a legal duty to prevent foreseeable harm to students, the state's supreme court has ruled in a case involving a student's suicide.

The court last month reinstated a lawsuit filed by James and Diane Brooks, the parents of a Meridian high school boy who killed himself in 1991. They argued that the boy's English teacher at Meridian High School should have warned them or school authorities that their son had expressed suicidal thoughts in a class journal. The parents sued the teacher and the Meridian district for negligence.

The teacher, Laura Logan, said in papers filed before a state trial court that she stopped reading students' journals early in the academic year and merely checked to ensure students wrote in them regularly. She turned over the student's journal, which included several passages alluding to death and suicide, to the parents after the boy's death.

The lower court issued a summary ruling in favor of the defendants, agreeing that school officials were not responsible for protecting the boy from suicide. The judge also ruled that--even had she read the journal--the teacher had no legal duty to take action.

The state high court reversed that decision based on the key issue of whether the school district had a duty to protect its students. In its ruling in the case, Brooks v. Logan, the court said the Idaho legislature had created a "statutory duty which requires a school district to ACT reasonably in the face of foreseeable risks of harm" to students.

The court said the district could be held liable if it failed to take action when faced with evidence that a student was contemplating suicide, even if the suicide takes place away from school grounds.

The court ruled that a jury must decide the factual question of whether Ms. Logan read the student's journal before he committed suicide, "or whether she could have detected his suicidal thoughts if she had read the journal." The case will return to the lower court for a jury trial.

New Jersey districts may fire tenured special-education teachers and replace them with outside service providers to save money, the state supreme court has ruled.

"Teaching positions may be abolished for reasons of economy," the court ruled in Impey v. Board of Education of the Borough of Shrewsbury.

The Shrewsbury district fired a speech therapist and hired an outside provider to perform the same work at a savings of $12,000 a year. The therapist sued, arguing that she was protected by tenure.

The court agreed that a district could not abolish a job and then create a new position providing the same function but with a different title or salary. But in this case, the district acted in good faith by abolishing the position to save money by contracting out for services, the court ruled.

The court's Aug. 14 ruling did not extend to regular classroom teachers.

--Mark Walsh

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