Are You Liable?

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Are You Liable?
Is your DEL key about to get gaveled? It doesn't matter whether you teach in a public or private school setting. You expose yourself to legal risks every single day on the job.
These are tough times for teachers. It doesn't matter whether you teach in a public or private school setting. You expose yourself to legal risks every single day on the job. 
 
So, let's look at liability from our point of view as teachers. (I am not an attorney, so read my general layperson's comments and observations then run questions by and seek advice from your attorney.) This mnemonic DIRE lays out some of the issues we need to watch for. Protecting yourself is so important. Nobody else will look out for your interests as well as you will.
 
Everyday risks
 
Your chances of getting sued are probably on a par with having an accident while driving. When you drive carefully, observe the rules of the road, stay alert and drive defensively, most of the time you will be OK. But, things happen for which you are not to blame. Like the time I came down one morning to get into my car to drive to work. Somebody had backed into the front end of my vehicle. Thank goodness I had insurance. Double thanks that the person who backed into my car left a note with her contact info and an apology together with a statement that her father would pay for the repairs.
 
 
On the other hand read Teacher In Hot Water For Taking Sick Student To Hospital, Footing The Bill  When it comes to students who are in our care and under our supervision you must follow the rules. Or face the consequences.
 
Document
 
In the old days most of us professionals would keep a day book. You kept track of your appointments and schedule in it. We also used it to document what was said and discussed at interviews and meetings. Our recollection of events diminishes rapidly within days of a meeting. The hours and what was said all run together after a while. That's why it is so important to have a record of  events which have occurred and what was discussed.
 
Fast forward to 2013. Google and other free, widely available email providers allow all us to keep track of everything electronically. So convenient and available anywhere any time via handhelds. The only caveat I have here is that you need to make certain that you keep records and notes in your personal email, not the school's. You control your personal email, calendars, documents, etc. You do NOT control the school's email. Period.
 
What should you document? Meetings with students, incidents which occur both in and out of the classroom and staff lounge, conversations with parents, meetings with parents, meetings with administrators. When somebody decides to sue you or you find yourself being asked to testify about some incident, your careful electronic notes will add to your credibility.
 
 
There is one very important caveat when it comes to electronic documentation. Be careful what you email, post on Facebook and Twitter or text on your smartphone. These electronic records never go away. Far better to discuss sensitive issues over the phone or in person. The minute you create an electronic record it could be used against you.
 
Insure
 
You need liability insurance. Yes, I know that the school provides insurance for you. But until you have your attorney read all the fine print and reassure you that the school's insurance is all you need, I would opt for purchasing my own liability insurance. Besides, the school buys insurance primarily to protect itself first and foremost. As with any insurance, buy it and have coverage BEFORE you need it. Remember that you might possibly have to defend yourself against all sorts of accusations. Legal fees could very quickly use up your savings and indeed could bankrupt you. For example, what if you give a student a failing grade and the family decides to sue? Or what if a child is injured during a group activity which you were supervising? The lists of 'what ifs' is endless. Buy liability insurance. At least $2 million worth.
 
Research
 
Research is my cautious way of warning you to research everything and anything which comes your way. Know what you are getting into before you get into it. I mention this simply because we teachers tend to be a trusting lot. The words of one of our Presidents always come to mind when I discuss this topic: "Trust, but verify."
 
Let me give you an example of what I mean. You have been asked to help with one of the sports teams. While that may be spelled out as one of your duties, confirm the details with a superior and make sure that they approve what you have been asked to do. This is so important for any new member of staff. Be eager and willing to help in any way you can.  But be street smart and savvy at the same time. You just never know when you are being set up for a fall by somebody who has taken a dislike to you.
 
Explain
 
You remember what ASSUME spells. Never assume that others understand what you are saying or your intentions. At least in the way you meant. Always restate what you have just said explaining everything carefully. Now, we teachers intrinsically think that we are pretty good at knowing when our students have grasped a point. Most of the times we are right. But the one time when your audience does NOT understand what you told them to do is the time which will get you in trouble. So explain. Write those explanations out. Put them online. Blog about them. Do whatever it takes to provide clear consistent explanations.
 
Teachers are exposed to liability more than ordinary citizens.
 
The William Gladden Foundation expresses the teacher liability issue succinctly: 
 
"Nearly every day, teachers must deal with laws related to issues such as child abuse, student discipline, negligence, defamation, student records and copyright infringement.  Each of these areas of law poses potential problems and pitfalls for teachers.  Ignorance of the laws related to these issues, or failure to obey the mandates of the laws, can produce grave consequences." 
 
Avoiding law suits is not something any of us want or need to think about all the time. We want to teacher. However we must be aware of the exposure we have as teachers. Exercising common sense and sound professional practices will prevent 99% of those nasty legal situations. Your insurance and documentation will provide you much peace of mind if and when you hit rough weather. 
 
Certain teaching specialities could expose you even more. For example, physical education teachers potentially face more risk of law suits than a Spanish teacher. Read Dr. William Alan Kritsonis paper Legal Liabilities for Teachers and Supervisors.  Understand your exposure. Take steps to protect yourself.
 
 
What about negligence? Mitchell Yell summarizes your exposure as follows: 
 
"There are four elements that must be present for negligence to occur: (1) the teacher must have a duty to protect students from unreasonable risks, (2) the teacher must have failed in that duty by not exercising a reasonable standard of care, (3) there must be a causal connection between the breach of the duty to care and the resulting injury, and (4) there must be an actual physical or mental injury resulting from the negligence. In a court, all four elements must be proven before damages will be awarded for negligence."
 
Teacher liability is real. Take time to read, understand and learn the laws and your rights especially as they apply to your specific employment situation.

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