Corrected: This article misstated the number of years Michael F. Gallagher taught at Overlook Elementary School and how much of his legal fees were paid by the Pennsylvania State Education Association and its insurer. He taught at the school in Abington, Pa., for nine years, and the union paid $35,000.
More teachers have been purchasing liability insurance to protect themselves from financial ruin in the event they are accused of wrongdoing or end up in court.
As they see their peers enduring highly publicized trials, some are fearful that their faces will be the next to be plastered on Court TV.
Officials at the nation’s third-largest insurer of teachers, Forrest T. Jones Inc., report that the number of teachers purchasing liability insurance has risen 25 percent in the past five years. The consumer trend is directly attributable, they say, to the litigiousness of the 1990s, and offers protection that is sometimes over and above the generous insurance packages their unions offer.
“We have gotten so lawsuit happy and legal crazy, teachers are paranoid and justifiably so,” said Doug Kocher, a director of property and casualty at Forrest T. Jones, a Kansas City, Mo.-based company that currently covers more than 150,000 teachers’ legal fees and court costs.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint how many cases have been filed, teachers nowadays seem to be entangled in more legal proceedings that may require a lawyer—particularly administrative hearings about special education placements and negligence lawsuits, some experts say.
But on any given week, from coast to coast, a teacher is likely to face an array of allegations, from failing to protect students from harm to harming students with too-severe punishments. Whether fairly or not, they are sometimes accused of neglecting to report suspected child abuse and charged with perpetrating abuses of their own. Of course, only a small percentage of the millions of teachers in this country end up in court. And to some extent, media coverage of such cases can inflate the problem in teachers’ minds, some education groups say.
In one widely publicized case this month, several 6th grade girls and a boy at a Montgomery County, Md., middle school recanted their accusations against a physical education teacher. He had earlier been suspended by the district and investigated by police after the students claimed he had watched the girls undress in the locker room and had fondled one of them.
Private liability insurance may have become more attractive in recent years, in part because it’s a bargain, according to Mr. Kocher. A liability package with Forrest T. Jones, for instance, costs about $80 a year for a $1 million policy. But another reason teachers are buying more insurance, he said, is that they are increasingly dubious that their districts will protect them if they are sued. “Most lawsuits, when they are filed, name everyone right down to the janitor and every Jane Doe and John Doe out there,” said Mr. Kocher.
District policies vary, but a teacher is generally not covered if he or she is charged in a criminal act or commits an offense off school grounds and the district determines the employee was not acting in his or her capacity as a teacher. Some district policies don’t cover part-time teachers at all. Private insurance can also be appealing to private school teachers, teachers who work in one of the 20 states that don’t require union membership, and union members who just want a little extra protection.
“This is a backup,” said Mr. Kocher. “It buys them peace of mind.”
Last fall, the National Council of Teachers of English switched to Forrest T. Jones in order to offer its 77,000 members—many of whom work part time—the opportunity to purchase individual liability insurance at a discount rate on top of their $30-a-year membership fee.
Judy Teasley, a high school teacher in Evans, Ga., who has private liability insurance through the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said the benefit is invaluable. “People will sue you for anything these days,” said Ms. Teasley, who was threatened with a lawsuit but never taken to court. “Would anybody go into the classroom without it?”
While private insurance companies are getting more teachers to sign on, unions are still the place where most teachers get their coverage.
Liability and other types of insurance are important elements of the benefits packages at the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which jointly insure more than 80 percent of the nation’s public school teachers.
It’s one of the main reasons teachers pay their dues, many union members say. In a recent AFT survey on what members want their union to do, occupational-liability protection ranked third, after advocacy for health-care benefits and handling of grievances.
“Insurance is a major organization tool,” said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the AFT, which has more than 600,000 teacher members. The benefit costs the AFT about $12 per year per member. “It’s standard equipment,” he said. “This is not an accessory.”
The NEA has been offering this benefit to its 1.9 million teachers since 1976. With annual national dues of $114, members can draw up to $1 million if they are charged in a civil suit, such as one in which a parent blames a teacher for inadequate student supervision on a playground. If a teacher is charged in a criminal case— say, assault while breaking up a fight—the union would pay up to $25,000.
“Teachers are frequently falsely accused of abuse and assault, and that can ruin someone’s career,” said Lynn Ohman, the director of member advocacy for the NEA.
Rob Knowles, a teacher in Sterling, Colo., said he welcomed the union’s financial assistance.
In 1992, a court found insufficient evidence to try the 54-year-old teacher for abuse after, as he describes it, “he accidentally snapped an 11-year-old student’s bra strap and patted another on the butt.”
But Mr. Knowles said the district fired him anyway after a month-long administrative hearing, saying he had “neglected his duty” to his students. Even though he lost the case, Mr. Knowles said he was relieved not to have been saddled with legal bills. “There is no way I could have afforded that.”
While districts do cover teachers in some civil cases, when the boss—not the student—is the accuser, the district doesn’t usually pick up the tab.
Both the AFT and NEA pay for teachers to have a lawyer at their side during employment disputes.
Dwight Harris, who settled a case this month with the Victoria, Texas, schools, said his union dues were worth every penny.
When Mr. Harris and another teacher were asked by district officials in 1995 to identify problems at Victoria High School and then told the superintendent that the principal was the problem, the two teachers were transferred. The teachers sued the district, saying their First Amendment right of free speech was violated. The district settled and paid Mr. Harris and the other teacher $25,000 each in damages.
“I couldn’t have done this myself. No teacher has the money to go up against the school district,” said Mr. Harris, who estimated that the union shelled out $140,000 in legal fees during five years of proceedings. “This [insurance] affords you the opportunity to fight for your rights.”
The adversarial atmosphere in the school community extends to administrators, too, says Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the 14,000-member American Association of School Administrators. The AASA spends about $100,000 a year to defend superintendents in contract disputes.
But Mr. Houston said the general assumption that districts won’t protect teachers if they are sued is exaggerated. “There’s no blanket rule that a district has to do certain things,” he said. “But in most cases, districts’ benefits are sufficient.”
But, he added, “everybody has their own level of risk aversion. For some people, you can never have enough insurance because you think the sky is going to fall on you.”
Banking on Fear
Union leaders have criticized private insurers for playing on those fears to market insurance that teachers don’t really need. In addition, because individual districts often have different and complicated insurance plans, and some states have laws buffering public school employees from lawsuits, teachers often have a hard time understanding what they should buy.
Union officials say this confusion ups the ante for them to offer policies with bigger payoffs even if they know the coverage they are touting is redundant.
The Texas Federation of Teachers recently finished a bidding war with several competing associations that raised the ceiling on liability benefits in an attempt to attract and retain members. The TFT bought a policy that bumped up its maximum liability-damage award from $2 million to $8 million.
But John Cole, the union’s president, said Texas law shields school employees from most civil lawsuits. In Texas, according to Mr. Cole, school employees can be held liable only for faulty operation of a motor vehicle or excessive force under corporal punishment.
Of all the cases brought against teachers there, in 90 percent of them the educators are exonerated, and no one case has ever cost $1 million, he said.
The increase in liability coverage “is an expenditure of money that does no good for anybody,” said Mr. Cole, who would rather spend union dues lobbying the legislature for better benefits. “But if [the unions] don’t have this [insurance], you’re out of business. It gives you a competitive edge.”
Some teachers who have been through trials complain that the promised protection doesn’t always live up to the hype.
Even though he is grateful he didn’t have to pay for his trial, Mr. Knowles said he wasn’t pleased with his union-appointed counsel. “My lawyers were young and inexperienced, and the district lawyer ran circles around mine,” he said.
Another trial-tested teacher said that even with a good policy and excellent representation, insurance doesn’t always cover every little expense.
Michael F. Gallagher, a 62-year-old teacher who taught at Overlook Elementary School in Abington, Pa., for 12 years, was accused of sexual molestation of a student and later exonerated. The Pennsylvania State Education Association paid $43,000 in legal expenses for the 10-month inquiry, which ended in 1998. But Mr. Gallagher said he still had to pay $4,000 in taxes for accepting the NEA affiliate’s help.
A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Fearful Teachers Buy Liability Insurance