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School Officials Question Need for Teacher Lawsuit Shield

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With the stroke of his pen, Governor Daniels signed into law a bill advertised as offering immunity to teachers from lawsuits stemming from disciplinary actions against students.  Daniels says the idea stems from teacher concerns.

“I’ve visited by now, I guess, hundreds of Indiana classrooms, scores of schools. And gradually I came to understand that they did not resemble the classrooms I knew or even that I think my children were in,” he said.

“And that a level of disobedience and disorder, even physical, abuse of our teachers had crept in. And that folks did not feel confident dealing with it. And so we acted. ”

Monroe County Consolidated School Corporation Superintendent Tim Hyland has been an administrator since the early 1960s.

“I read the Governor’s comments about how he talks to teachers and how they’re worried about lawsuits. Candidly, I find that hilarious,” he said.

“I don’t know which teachers he’s talking to. It’s a very small group.”

Bill author Clyde Kersey of Terre Haute also spoke at the bill signing.

“It will help restore order and discipline in classrooms that we haven’t had for a long time because of the courts.”

That’s Hyland reading a part of Kersey’s speech.

“What’s [Kersey] talking about? We don’t have order and discipline in classrooms because of the absence of this statute?  He sounds like a throwback to Dirty Harry,” he said.

Kersey says his motivation for writing the law comes mostly from anecdotal evidence he’s heard from educators in his district.

“I don’t know how many cases have been filed. I don’t know how many teachers have been sued,” he said.

Indiana University Education Professor Suzanne Eckes says there haven’t been very many cases. She would know — she summarizes every case brought against a school district in the nation for the Yearbook of Education.  Eckes says the fear of lawsuits among teachers is largely unfounded. Eckes says there’s little to no evidence teachers are increasingly being sued because of classroom discipline.

“But I have seen certainly more fear. So maybe one way to explain that could be the…what they see in the media and what they hear about a lot of cases where lawsuits are filed against teachers. But then if you actually follow those cases, those specific student injury cases, you’ll find that a lot of those cases are dismissed if the teacher was acting reasonably,” she said.

Eckes says her students were excited about the new state law because, she says, they have the same misperceptions about the amount of lawsuits as the Governor.

“They fear there are more lawsuits than there actually are. And then within those lawsuits they think they’re going to lose more often than they actually do,” she said.

Eckes says the Indiana state law actually echoes language already in place at the federal level.

“I’m not really sure the law’s changed much. Because before this law was passed a teacher waould not be found liable if he or she was acting reasonably in the course of his or her duties when disciplining students. The protection it actually offers teachers is actually quite limited,” Eckes said.

Eckes says a provision in the federal No Child Left Behind Act from 2002 – known as the Paul Coverdale Act – already grants teachers the same rights as laid out in Indiana’s new law. When trying to determine whether a teacher was acting reasonably when disciplining a student — which is what existing law and the new law call for — Eckes says it’s a question of fact for a judge. But it’s a fact based on a judge’s subjective opinion. So, naturally, there’s leeway.  Daniels says the law was necessary to give teachers peace of mind. But Hyland says the law may backfire, giving educators the impression they’ll be protected, regardless of their behavior.

“I don’t want people to think it’s the wild west now because they’re free from any legal constraints. Because certainly they’re not free from legal constraints. Because if they do something wrong they’ll end up charged and/or sued. I don’t know what the problem is. Seems like a political stand to me,” Hyland said.

Hyland says the packaging of the law for the media at the bill signing distracts from a provision that could help Indiana schools. He says the law’s expansion of teacher background checks using out-of-state databases was needed and will flag felons applying for education jobs in Indiana. The law takes effect July 1.

Daniel Robison

Daniel started as WFIU's Assistant News Director in July 2008. He graduated with a B.A. in history in 2007 and earned an M.A. in journalism two years later. Daniel hosts Ask the Mayor weekly and the occasional Noon Edition. He also hosts Morning Edition on Thursdays, sleepily. Daniel's beats include everything News Director Stan Jastrzebski wants him to cover. And it feels strange to type biography of myself in the third person like this. So that's that.

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