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Published in Print: September 15, 1999, as Threat of Lawsuits A Burden on Principals, Poll Says

Threat of Lawsuits A Burden on Principals, Poll Says

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A threat of lawsuits is leading many principals to take radical steps to prevent them from forbidding all physical contact between teachers and students to eliminating gymnastics programs, according to a survey released last week by the American Tort Reform Association.

The survey of 523 principals also found that 20 percent said they spend five to 10 hours a week in meetings or documenting events to avoid litigation. And 25 percent have been involved in school lawsuits or out-of-court settlements in the past two years.

Gerald N. Tirozzi
Principals spend too much time in the courtroom, Gerald N. Tirozzi of the National Association of Secondary School Principals says.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

The potential for being sued "deters principals from fulfilling their missions," argued Sherman Joyce, the president of ATRA, a Washington-based litigation-reform group whose members include trade associations and corporations.

The group released the survey at a news conference here along with leaders of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"Principals need to spend more time in the classroom and less time in the courtroom," agreed Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the NASSP.

The groups did not offer solutions, but said they wished to draw attention to how a climate of litigation is affecting schools.

The survey, which was mailed to 5,000 randomly selected members of the two principals' associations, found that 65 percent of the respondents had altered or ended school programs because of liability concerns or costs.

Seventy-eight principals who responded to the survey, or 15 percent, said they had banned all physical contact, such as hugging, between teachers and their pupils.

Four percent of respondents, or 26 principals, reported ending gymnastics, and 6 percent said their schools had stopped teaching driver's education.

Overreacting?

Deborah Jacobs, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which has represented numerous parents and students in suits against school systems, said in an interview that school administrators often make litigious situations more taxing than they need to be.

"The costly litigation that schools enter into with respect to civil liberties issues is litigation they could have avoided if they'd backed down and did the right thing at an earlier stage," she said.

At the press conference, school leaders lamented that concerns about possible sexual-harassment suits have become so strong that some teachers and principals feel they can't console a child with a hug.

But Leslie T. Annexstein, a senior counsel at the Washington-based National Women's Law Center, said prohibiting all physical contact between adults and students or among students is not a reasonable reaction.

"That's not what we would advocate," she said.

"Schools need to have policies that the school is committed to create and maintain an environment free of sexual harassment, provide a definition of sexual harassment, and talk about examples of prohibitive conduct, such as physical assault and unwelcome sexually oriented jokes," Annexstein added.

Because the information provided by principals for the survey was confidential, ATRA did not provide the names of schools that had banned all physical contact or ended programs because of liability concerns or costs.

Several principals interviewed last week, however, said that they did perceive the amount of litigation brought against schools had increased, and that they had become more deliberate in their actions to avoid it.

"We're always looking over our shoulder," said Dennis R. Osman, the principal of Gooding High School in Gooding, Idaho, whose school became involved in a lawsuit last year involving student disciplinary action. The case is now headed for the state supreme court.

"I'm always looking to make sure I don't have a legal problem," Mr. Osman said.

Vol. 19, Issue 2, Page 3

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