- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Universally accepted truth No. 1. Our schools, designed to produce the next generation of citizens, possessing sound mind and body — are increasingly producing neither.

Ever wonder why home-schooling is fast becoming the most popular educational alternative to traditional public schools? One reason might well be because public schools have become a place where students are forced to sit too much and exercise too little. Some argue this is the primary legacy of the president’s No Child Left Behind initiative.

The emphasis on testing and test preparation has left recess behind. But testing has been a part of going to school since the first teacher met the first student. A more recent and troubling development in American education is the invasion into our schools of the “litigious society.” Perhaps the real reason too many of our kids are undereducated and overweight can be traced to the fact that too many teachers feel forced to teach “defensively” because of a concern for legal consequences and too many administrators look at playgrounds and see courtrooms.

Schools, once places that emphasized both the intellectual and physical development of young people are increasingly being held hostage by legal maneuvers that leave teachers and administrators wary of getting sued and more and more locker-room doors are closed to students looking to burn energy and develop themselves physically.

So, during a time when educational competitiveness along with childhood obesity are large and (no pun intended) growing problems, why are schools increasingly not the answer? That would bring us to: universally accepted Truth No. 2: We sue too much in this country.

Somehow, somewhere in this country we have lost the concept of personal responsibility and replaced it with the concept that if something bad happens it is somebody else’s fault and there is money to be made in that. Sadly, that mindset has infiltrated our nation’s public schools.

Because of the fear of lawsuits, schools in Michigan have banned sledding. Schools in Maryland have banned dodgeball, and there are even “no running” signs on playgrounds at Broward County, Fla. schools. Games like “Tag” and “Duck Duck Goose” are causing great concern to schools and school districts nationwide. Little wonder then that a recent Harris Interactive poll of 500 teachers and 301 principals nationwide found:

• Eighty-two percent of teachers and 77 percent of principals say schools practice “defensive teaching” — meaning decisions are motivated by a desire to avoid legal challenges;

• Seventy-seven percent of principals think that principals (other than themselves) avoid decisions that they think are right simply because they might be challenged legally;

• Sixty-one percent of teachers think that teachers (other than themselves) avoid decisions that they think are right simply because they might be challenged legally; and

• Sixty-two percent of principals believe that concerns about legal challenges have made teachers’ relationships with students less personal.

Behind these numbers are countless lawsuits against schools for everything from giving a student a grade they aren’t happy with to cutting a student from the varsity team or even because a student got a splinter on the playground.

Fear of lawsuits means teachers are being told what they can’t say or do or even think when it comes to classroom management and conduct. It used to be that discipline was a part of getting a good education. Now, it seems, disciplining a student opens up a teacher to all sort of horribles coming from parents and their lawyers.

Can’t wear a certain slogan on a sweatshirt? Sue. Can’t utter certain sayings in class? Sue. There are some commonsense ways to police the boundaries between legitimate concerns and frivolous lawsuits. And no one is arguing that teachers never make mistakes and that every playground is a safe haven and every recess game an innocent event. But when a fear of litigation stops good men and women from doing good work it is a sure sign things have gone too far. And because it is public education, the taxpayers foot the bill; not only for the education (as troublesome as it might be) but for the lawyers.

What does this all mean? Some percentage of a teacher’s time is spent worrying about being sued rather than that of their core mission — educating the next generation. These are your schools and your kids — and increasingly it is your money going to fight a legal system that’s quickly getting out of control.

Eugene W. Hickok is a former deputy secretary at the Department of Education. Todd D. Lamb is executive director for Maryland Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

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