- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

These days, students are learning a different kind of lesson in the classroom: Anything is possible if you have money and a good attorney.

More parents are suing their children's teachers, arguing that their children deserve better grades or should be allowed to graduate from high school despite a failing grade, educators say.

•In Arizona, high school officials allowed a student to graduate after her parents threatened to sue a teacher who failed her and didn't allow the student to receive her high school diploma.

•In Ohio, a student and her mother sued a school district and 11 teachers for $6 million, arguing that the school's grading practices punished the girl for her repeated absences. The case has been dismissed.

•In Kansas, parents threatened to sue school officials after a biology teacher failed 28 of her 118 students on a project she said students plagiarized. As a result, the local school board reduced the students' penalties and ordered the teacher to change the project's weight within the total semester grade. The teacher resigned.

Bad grades, poor attendance and bad behavior used to be offenses punishable by suspension or, in severe cases, expulsion. But those offenses are now easily downgraded or reversed as long as the parents have a good lawyer, education analysts say.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see more lawsuits in the future," said Krista Kafer, a senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "We've become a litigious society that's using the law to get what we want."

Educators say teachers now are under great pressure because they are getting mixed signals from parents and the government.

"Teachers are feeling the dichotomy," said Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues with the American Federation of Teachers, which represents a million teachers.

"On one side you've got people who are telling them to raise the standards, and on the other side you've got parents who are saying, 'Wait a minute, you're being too hard on my kid.' There's a fine line, and it pretty much depends on whoever's kids you have in your class."

However, legal analysts argue that judges rarely render opinions on these types of cases.

Sheldon Steinbach, vice president and legal adviser of the District-based American Council on Education, said judges usually defer judgment on these cases to the academics who have experience with grading. "Judges say they just don't have the expertise, or do not want to second-guess the academics," he said.

Also, the No Child Left Behind education law states that teachers are protected from most lawsuits if they have been acting within their responsibilities. The law includes a teacher liability section to ensure that teachers, principals and other educators are able to undertake "reasonable actions" to maintain discipline in the classroom.

No national statistics are available on lawsuits against schools and teachers, according to officials at the National School Boards Association, which represents 14,000 local school boards.

In the past five years, officials say there has been more litigation over special education for students with disabilities, which in most cases carry legal weight, especially when a child's disabilities are dismissed by a teacher as a poor work ethic.

Accidents in schools are the next most common type of cases, followed by lawsuits involving federal statutes, collective bargaining and constitutional issues, officials said.

In some cases, parents even take schools to court when their children don't succeed in school sports.

A father in Alabama sued the local school district after his daughter didn't make her high school's cheerleading squad. He contended that his daughter's rejection caused her humiliation and mental anguish.

Meanwhile, two mothers from Connecticut are suing their local high school district after the school decided to drop their daughters from the drum majorette squad.

The trend has also made its way onto college campuses.

In Massachusetts last year, a student sued the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences after college officials dismissed her for poor exam scores. The student charged that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the school should have accommodated her "exam phobia." The student argued that because the exam room was noisy and crowded with other students, she could not concentrate on taking her test.

The number of threats and lawsuits against teachers and schools is forcing schools to spend already limited funds on lawyers and insurance. Meanwhile, teachers spend more time protecting themselves from litigation two elements that can frustrate public education, analysts say.

Suing for grades "dumbs down" the school curriculum because it negates a student's performance, said Winfield Myers, an education analyst in Delaware.

"Hardworking students are cheated of the status they earned, while teachers are undermined by administrators who refuse to stand up for what is right and defend a teacher's ability to pass judgment on a student's performance," Mr. Myers said.

"The art of teaching is degraded when every encounter between teacher and pupil is circumscribed by bureaucratic rules designed to please the lowest common denominator, lest teachers be sued. It's a recipe for producing bored students taught by constrained teachers who work for obsequious administrators."

In addition, students who fail or get into trouble don't learn about taking responsibility for their actions, Miss Kafer said.

"This is just a bad-parent response to holding their children accountable for their actions," she said. "These are bad parents shielding their kids from responsibility. As a result, there could be more children who plagiarize and have a poor work ethic."

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