Fear And Loathing

October 01, 1999 1 min read

Principals are taking radical steps to shield their schools from lawsuits-including banning physical contact between teachers and students, according to a new survey by the American Tort Reform Association.

One quarter of the principals polled by ATRA say they have been involved in lawsuits or out-of-court settlements in the past two years. And one in five say they spend five to 10 hours a week working to avoid litigation. “Principals need to spend more time in the classroom and less time in the courtroom,” says Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Second ary School Principals, which released the findings last month with ATRA and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

The survey-mailed to 5,000 randomly selected members of the two principals’ groups-found that 65 percent of the 523 respondents have altered or ended school programs because of liability concerns. Fifteen percent say they have banned hugging and other physical contact between teachers and their pupils. Four percent report ending gymnastics, and 6 percent say their schools have dropped driver’s ed.

Principals may be overreacting, say some experts. Leslie Annexstein, a senior counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center, con tends that it’s not reasonable to prohibit physical contact between adults and students. Instead, she says, schools should “create and maintain an environment free of sexual harassment, provide a definition of sexual harassment, and talk about examples of prohibitive conduct.”

And even a school cursed with the proverbial lawsuit-waiting-to-happen isn’t necessarily in for a big loss, says Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. Those schools faced with costly litigation could have avoided the whole mess, she says, if they had “backed down and done the right thing at an earlier stage.”

--Mary Ann Zehr