Law grants teachers immunity from civil suits

June 22, 2009

Educators widely support a new state law that gives teachers immunity from civil lawsuits for trying to discipline students.

But opponents of corporal punishment are giving it a frosty reception, fearing Indiana students could be subjected to more paddling without legal recourse.

State Rep. Clyde Kersey, D-Terre Haute, a retired teacher, introduced the immunity bill championed by Tony Bennett, the state's new superintendent of public instruction.

Bennett hopes the provision will help restore classroom order. While campaigning, he often referred to an incident in which a teacher at the school where his wife is principal feared breaking up a fight due to the risk of being sued if she grabbed a student.

The Indiana State Teachers Association lobbied in favor of the measure, which goes into effect July 1, as did Eugene White, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, the state's largest school system.

"It gives the teacher a greater sense of support," White said, "and that's the most important part of the whole thing."

Indiana is just the 10th state to pass legislation providing teachers immunity from civil suits in disciplinary matters and is among 21 states allowing corporal punishment.

Still, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Indiana students were paddled in the 2006-2007 school year, according to the latest statistics available from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.

Opponents of paddling say the percentage is bound to rise, now that teachers are shielded from liability.

A recent study by Michael Hickmon, an activist for school punishment reform, predicts Indiana students will be 50 times more likely to be paddled than they were under current law.

Mississippi (7.5 percent), Arkansas (4.7 percent) and Alabama (4.5 percent) have the highest rates of student paddling. It's no coincidence each provides immunity to teachers, the study said.

"There can be no doubt of the popularity of an educator immunity act, and as an election-year gimmick, it is certain to win votes," Hickmon said in the study. "But despite the public's enthusiasm for the concept, the evidence shows that this would be a major step backwards for Indiana's kids."

The study, which Hickmon says was initiated in response to Indiana's immunity legislation, appears on the Web site of the Columbus, Ohio-based Center for Effective Discipline. Hickmon does not work for the center.

The not-for-profit, which promotes alternatives to corporal punishment, tracks state disciplinary measures and opposes teacher immunity.

"It restricts parents' power to protect their children," said Nadine Block, the organization's executive director. "In states where this is passed, a parent can't even hire an attorney."

But advocates of Indiana's new law point out that many civil suits naming teachers as defendants don't necessarily arise from physical punishment. Instead, a teacher might be involved in a student's suspension, which can prompt accusations leading to a lawsuit from the parents, for instance.

Further, supporters aren't attempting to exonerate teachers who act wrongly or use excessive force, said Dan Clark, deputy director of the state teachers association.

How many teachers have been sued by students is unclear. Neither the state's Department of Education nor the Office of Attorney General, whose lawyers represent school corporations, keeps statistics on such filings.

Hindering any record keeping is the fact most suits are settled before they reach a courtroom, said Bryan Corbin, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office.

The law received broad support by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, likely aided by provisions mandating more thorough criminal background checks on teachers and adding child pornography to the list of felonies that can lead to license revocation.

The Indiana Trial Lawyers Association did not take a stand on the issue because much of the immunity was provided under prior law, said Bruce Kehoe, a lawyer and association president.

The Attorney General's Office has authority under the prior law to provide legal representation to teachers. The new law extends that protection by giving teachers qualified legal immunity from lawsuits—if their actions to maintain school discipline were reasonable under the school's policy and taken in good faith, Corbin said.

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