It's not very often I will post comments to something I have written, but every now and then, someone will impress me with an impressively reasoned and well-thought-out response. This comment was a response to this post that I wrote for Open Source Politics regarding "Zero Tolerance":
I think we (I include myself as a school employee, not as an unreasonable person) lost our ability to be reasonable when parents realized they had the ability to sue us. Every decision we make is motivated by fears of liability, not some head-up-our-ass obliviousness.
I personally would not have passed the 14-year-old girl's story up the line to an administrator unless I had other clues that the girl may have been a danger to herself or others. In that regard, I think the art teacher's biggest failing is in not knowing who her students really are. The nurse who pressed the case against inhaler boy was just wrong.
However, had the girl gone on to kill a teacher, and someone during the
investigation found out that a school employee knew she'd had those thoughts and did nothing about it, well, welcome to a legal nightmare. Same thing if the asthmatic girl had reacted badly to the inhaler (yes, it was the same prescription and the boy knew that), or if some other student borrowed medicine from a friend and died.
I'm not blaming parents or trial lawyers or school administrators in particular. But I work in education, and there is a very real cover-your-ass menatility and a very real fear of legal and litigational consequences if we screw up. For example, last week a few other teachers and I went on a field trip to the local university to see a play. When we got back to school, the teacher who organized the trip realized that two of her students were missing. The teacher had been the last one out of the theatre, the last one on the bus, and had even checked the bathrooms. The students in question had previously asked if they could stay on campus to go home with one girl's husband, who attends the university (they are Hmong, and marry as young as 14). We all knew that that was probably what happened--the girls snuck off during intermission, maybe,
and found the husband--but this teacher was almost crying in fear for her job and any personal liablity she may have been under, up until the principal called the girl's home and found that what we thought was exactly what happened. The girls have been suspended and the teacher has vowed never to go on another field trip. But you see my point.
Zero tolerance was a reaction to litigation and legal liability, and I think both sides went too far in the matter. Maybe at some point we will hit a happy medium, but until then, expect to see more indefensible lawsuits against schools and more indefensible applications of zero tolerance.
How sad is it that when the first thing a teacher thinks about when a student sneaks off is that her career may be in jeopardy- through no fault of her own? It seems that we have reached a point in our legal history when we as parents are trolling for any excuse to sue teachers, administators, or school districts. In this scenario, we often hold schools to standards that we would never dream of holding ourselves to. Of course, when it comes to children, parents often lose all sense of reason and perspective. This is nothing new, but does it have to be litigated to the nth degree? It would seem so.
In the final analysis, what we will be left with are teachers and administrators who will be so frightened of being sued that not only will they not be willing to go the extra mile, but "Zero Tolerance" will become a defense mechanism. It already is in some districts. What other defense would a district have against litigation-happy parents?