Are You Liable?
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. Some people think that teachers have a soft job. Public school teachers only have to work ten months of the year. Most private school teachers have it even better as they usually work a nine-month year. Of course, that's a distorted view of the profession. Many teachers teach summer sessions or run summer camps. They might have a month of vacation if they are lucky. Lurking on the sidelines is the question of liability. Yes, teachers can be held liable for all sorts of things which make no sense. The problem is that American society is very litigious. Folks will sue in a nanosecond. Lawsuits, as you well know, are time-consuming, expensive, and, in the worst cases can be career-limiting events.
So, let's look at liability from our point of view as teachers. Disclaimer: I am not an attorney, so read my layperson's comments and observations, then run questions by and seek advice from your attorney. The mnemonic DIRE lays out some of the issues we need to watch for. Protecting yourself is very important. Nobody else will look out for your interests as well as you will.
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 can 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. Fortunately for me 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.
In the old days, most of us professionals would keep a day book. You kept track of your appointments and schedule in it. But you also used it to document what was 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 the events which have occurred and what was discussed.
These days Google and other free, widely available email providers allow all us to keep track of everything electronically. So convenient and available anywhere, anytime via handhelds. The only caveat I must add here is to warn you to keep records and notes in your personal email, not the school's email servers. 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 detailed electronic notes will add to your credibility.
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 to protect itself first and foremost. As with any insurance, buy it and have the coverage before you need it. Remember that you might have to defend yourself against all sorts of accusations. For example, what if you give a student a failing grade and his family decides to sue? Or 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 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.
You remember what ASSUME spells. Never assume that others understand what you are saying or your intentions. At least in the way you intended. Always restate what you have just said explaining everything carefully. Now, we teachers intrinsically think we are pretty good at knowing when our students have grasped a point. Most of the time we are right. But the one time when your class 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.
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 lawsuits is not something any of us want or need to think about all the time. 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. Good luck!
Questions? Contact me on Twitter. @privateschl