Lessons on legal immunity for school officials

Teachers, administrators, and other school staff are considered public employees, which means they have certain protections under federal and state laws. But those immunities are complex and apply only in certain situations, and the laws are always evolving.

A webinar sponsored by NSBA’s National Affiliate program and legal department gave school board members and others a quick lesson in the basic legal concept of immunity and the laws that offer protections to school officials. The webinar, “Teacher and Administrator Immunity,” will be archived at www.nsba.org/webchannelna for later viewing.

Attorney Derek Teeter of Husch Blackwell LLP  in Kansas City explained that while some laws date back hundreds of years, the most current laws came about because of concerns that school officials needed autonomy to discipline and perform other basic functions of their jobs without fear of retribution.

“Public school teachers and administrators get sued all the time — some would say at an increasing rate,” Teeter said.

The most common lawsuits his firm sees are negligent supervision, constitutional rights, and statutory rights, such as services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. A typical lawsuit, he added, can cost tens of thousands of dollars to defend and distract from a school official’s job and personal life. A concern about lawsuits can drive some employees away from the field.

A wide range of school employees, including nearly all teachers and administrators, have “qualified immunity” created by federal and state laws or court decisions that apply in particular circumstances.

In general, these laws are only for public duties and the official capacity of their jobs. The laws require employees to exercise some sort of reasonable judgment—”You can’t know what you’re doing is wrong and still have protection,” Teeter noted.

A relatively new law, the Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Protection Act, was included in the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. It was designed to give school employees additional tools to do their jobs without retribution. Teeter said he was hopeful the law will be invoked in more court cases, which would benefit school districts. While the law offers more protection that state immunity laws, it still does not provide immunity for gross negligence or recklessness, he added.

Teeter’s firm represented a school district that was sued in a case where a special education student, who had been expelled for violent behavior at a charter school, enrolled in a public high school in Kansas City and attempted to slit another student’s throat in the cafeteria. In Dydell v. Taylor, student Craig Dydell sued the Kansas City superintendent for $1 million for negligence, saying that school leaders should have been warned of the attacker’s violent past. The trial court found the superintendent was eligible for immunity and rejected Dydell’s arguments that the Coverdell Teacher Protection Act was unconstitutional. The state’s high court upheld that verdict. (Legal Clips covered this ruling on Feb. 8, 2011. Read more here.)

The decision was particularly important for defining the scope of the requirements of that law, Teeter said.

To provide more information about school law issues, The Council of School Attorneys (COSA) will host a three-part series of webinars designed by its labor committee to assist school board attorneys facing collective bargaining in difficult economic times:

  • Bargaining with no Money — June 14
  • Bargaining in the Midst of Changes to State Law — July 12
  • Tying Teacher Evaluations to Student Achievement — August 9

The webinars will be held at 1 to 2:30 p.m. EDT.  Cost is $175 for all three webinars for COSA members and $275 for non-members. For more information or to register, please go here.

Joetta Sack-Min|May 17th, 2011|Categories: Multimedia and Webinars, School Board News, School Law|

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