Fear of Lawsuits Spurs Districts To Cut Programs

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Washington--As many as three-fifths of schools nationwide have curtailed or modified programs because of the threat of lawsuits or the lack of affordable liability insurance, two surveys released here last week indicate.

In a poll conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 58 percent of the principals responding said they had noted changes in school-related programs traceable to such liability concerns. An identical survey of school-board lawyers, conducted by the National School Boards Association, found that 36 percent had noted such changes.

August W. Steinhilber, general counsel of the nsba, said the higher figure probably gives a more accurate picture of the problem, because principals are more aware than board lawyers of what is happening in schools.

The data are the first to document the effects on schools of the "tort-liability explosion," said Ivan B. Gluckman, nassp's staff counsel. Although relatively few schools in the surveys had been involved in lawsuits, he noted, many officials acted to reduce their risks out of fear of potential losses.

Physical-education courses were most likely to be affected, the surveys found, with 38 percent of the principals and 19 percent of the lawyers reporting classes terminated or modified. But the polls also revealed that field trips, vocational classes, and science laboratories have also been curtailed.

In addition, the studies showed, many schools have cut back on gymnastics, cheerleading, dances, and the use of volunteers.

While some of the changes have improved school safety--for example, many schools have stopped cheerleaders from building human pyramids on hardwood basketball courts--most have harmed schools' "ability to provide a well-rounded education to our children," said James R. Oglesby, president of the nsba

"The legal rights of all citizens must be preserved and protected," Mr. Oglesby said at a press conference here. "But when the consequences of actions by a relative few threaten the welfare of the vast majority, it is obvious that the scales of justice have been tilted far out of balance."

To correct the problem, the groups urged state lawmakers to enact legislation to limit schools' exposure in liability cases; to discourage "frivolous" lawsuits; to limit jury awards for punitive damages; and to protect volunteers from civil liability.

The new survey findings represent the latest salvo in schools' efforts to deal with their growing inability to obtain affordable liability insurance.

Over the past few years, according to Mr. Gluckman, school officials have suspected that skyrocketing premiums and restricted coverage were forcing districts to curtail programs. But there was only "anecdotal information" to support such assertions, he said. "We didn't collect that kind of data."

Based on responses from 190 secondary-school principals and 290 school-board lawyers, the surveys offer evidence that officials' suspicions were correct.

Although few curricular programs at the heart of schools' academic mission have been affected, the survey results show, many activities deemed vital for a "well-rounded education" have been curtailed.

For example, despite the importance officials attached to field trips in expanding the educational horizons of low-income students, the surveys found that 26 percent of the principals and 13 percent of the lawyers reported modifying or eliminating such excursions.

"Even when you approve them, you hold your breath," Roger E. Jones, principal of E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Va., said at last week's press conference.

In addition, schools reported restricting the use of materials in shop classes, including vocational training for special-education students; removing outdoor equipment used during recess; eliminating the use of certain chemicals in science laboratories; and removing certain materials in art classes.

Among extracurricular programs, gymnastics was found to be most affected, with 11 percent of the principals reporting that the program had been eliminated.

Both principals and lawyers also said schools have cut back on the use of volunteers to serve as coaches and dance chaperones out of fear that they would be sued for hiring unqualified supervisors.

"We no longer have volunteer coaches," Mr. Jones said. "You don't take that kind of risk."

While many of the survey respondents reported that the high cost of liability insurance had prompted the program changes, the majority cited the threat of lawsuits.

This fear was somewhat surprising, officials noted, in light of the fact that relatively few schools have been involved in liability cases. Only 9 percent of the principals and 17 percent of the lawyers reported being involved in lawsuits or out-of-court settlements over the past two years.

Mr. Gluckman of nassp said the schools' actions reflected the "ripple effect" of media reports of lawsuits and large judgments. When a principal reads of an award made in a case in a neighboring school, he said, he may change a program out of fear that his school may be sued next.

Moreover, said Mr. Oglesby of the nsba, school officials must be "good custodians of the taxpayers' resources."

"I don't think it's prudent to wait until you are sued to do something about" your potential risks, he said.

The proposed legislative remedies would help reduce the risks for schools, suggested Martin F. Connor, president of the American Tort Reform Association, a coalition of some 500 organizations that lobbies for state and federal legislation on behalf of defendants in liability cases.

"There is no silver bullet," Mr. Connor said. "But there are lots of things we can do."

The groups called for:

Reforming the doctrine of "joint and several liability," under which schools can be held responsible for actions they had little part in causing;

Authorizing judges to assess lawyers' fees and court costs for bringing an action deemed frivolous or groundless;

Restricting the amount of punitive damages juries can award; and

Providing immunity from civil liabilities for volunteers acting in good faith.

The proposals would also act to reduce the cost of liability insurance, if they are effective, Mr. Steinhilber of the nsba predicted.

Although critics have charged that insurance companies manipulated the so-called "insurance crisis" of the mid-1980's by driving up premiums and restricting coverage, the firms are not to blame for schools' insurance costs, he maintained, because many school districts have quit the commercial insurance market and began insuring themselves or forming "pools" with other districts.






High Premiums

No Insurance




In-School Program Changes:



Vocational classes/Shop1231322

Driver's education160.53--

Class/Field trips2261433

Nurses station0.552----

Science labs--15940.5

Student transportation--0.5--0.50.5


Ski school--0.5------

Special events--20.50.5--

Special education--0.50.5----


Extracurricular Program Changes:

Adult activities

  • --2----1

Fundraising events215634






Drum/Bugle corps--0.5------









Track and field0.512450.5

Gymnastics/Weight training118971



Ski Club1--10.5--

Student transportation0.50.510.5--


Other after-school

clubs and activities0.510.50.5--


  • Staff and community

SOURCE: National Association of Secondary School Principals

Liability's Effects

Proportion of 190 principals responding to survey indicating which programs have been affected by liability concerns and what factors are responsible for those changes.

Vol. 09, Issue 01

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