Published Online: May 16, 2001
Published in Print: May 16, 2001, as Federal File

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Unions: So Sue Me

It's a strange day in Washington when lawmakers propose legislation to protect educators from lawsuits—and the teachers' unions oppose it.

The Teacher Liability Protection Act, created by two Republicans, would help protect teachers, administrators, and other officials from nuisance lawsuits, its sponsors say. The bill passed, 98-1, as an amendment to the Senate Elementary and Secondary Education Act bill last week.

Sen. Fred Thompson, R- Tenn., the lone dissenter, said the amendment was unconstitutional meddling in state business. The House hasn't acted on it.

One of the sponsors, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said lawsuits hectoring educators have increased dramatically in recent years. He cited instances of students' threatening to kill teachers or cursing them and then, when the students were suspended or expelled, following up with legal complaints alleging abusive punishment.

Such lawsuits send "a real horrible message to wayward students that school officials don't have any authority and students don't take any responsibility" for their misbehavior, Sen. McConnell says.

One might guess that the two major teachers' unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, would support erecting a firewall against teachers' being sued.

In fact, though, the two unions say the move is unnecessary, and may even interfere with state and local laws on frivolous lawsuits. Both say they haven't had any members complain about teacher-liability issues.

"This is a solution without a problem," said David Strom, the legislative director for the 1 million-member AFT.

After concerns were raised about whether the measure would lead to more corporal punishment of students, including a New York Times editorial on the issue, Mr. McConnell removed provisions that would have protected school officials who paddled students.

—Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 20, Issue 36, Page 27

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