What Educators Really Think of the Lawsuit

Education in Law

Litigation and Education: What Educators Really Think of the Lawsuit

The access to equal and fair education is extremely important. Recent efforts to ensure this have ended in litigation, legally testing the ability of this nation to protect the basic rights of all of its students. Yet, not all educators favor litigation so highly. A recent study conducted by Johnson & Duffett (2003) tests how litigation is perceived by educators and administrators.

The study examines the real beliefs of modern day educators. According to the study itself, “Lawsuits were instrumental in ending segregation and extending public education to children with disabilities,” (Johnson & Duffett 2003:2). State and federal courts have regulated over education for years, trying to ensure that every child receives an equal and satisfactory education (State Legislatures 2004). A wide variety of issues from funding, segregation, to sexual harassment are covered by litigation ruling over education. Major progress in achieving equality during the Civil Rights Era came through litigation, especially in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (Aldridge 1978). This research looks at the views of teachers, principles, and superintendents and how they feel about the role of litigation within the larger realm of education. It examined the viewpoints of individuals within three focus groups. Additionally implemented a nation-wide survey on the topic of litigation, in order to examine educator feelings regarding litigation.

The study concluded with several key findings. According to the research, “For many teachers and principals, the possibility of being sued or being accused of physical or sexual abuse of a student is ever present in their minds,” (Johnson & Duffett 2003:3). In fact, it is so prevalent among teaching considerations, that many educators decide to take a strong practice of never touching their children at all, even in the slightest of instances, as a way to protect from their actions being misconstrued, then causing potential legal ramifications. This is known as taking a hands-off approach (Johnson & Duffett 2003:7). Thus, it is clear that lawsuits are on teacher’s minds.

Yet, it is the principals that overwhelmingly see themselves as potential targets for misunderstandings. Many principals and superintendents see lawsuits and litigation proceedings as time-consuming and extremely frustrating, actually standing in the way of progress rather than pushing progressively forward. Although teachers are too in danger of potential law suits, “principals and superintendents have an added layer of responsibility,” (Johnson & Duffett 2003:8). They can be sued for a greater variety of potential infractions, some which they may have direct control of, and others barely any control at all. Many principals also report being constantly threatened with lawsuits as a way to try and get selfish demands met by parents and even the students themselves.

This can become increasingly messy within the field of special education

According to research, many parents refuse to accept their child’s placement within special education programs. In many cases, these angered parents will sue.

“A parent objecting to her child’s education has cost that district over half a million dollars in legal fees,” (Johnson & Duffett 2003:10). Additionally, individuals in more of an administrative role must be forced to deal with the backlash of discipline. When a child is disciplined, there is always a slight chance that the story might later come up as a legal issue. Moreover, principals and superintendents must also worry about the issue of disciplining staff, including termination proceedings that may also end up in legal disputes.

In many cases, these individuals also see litigation as a way for people to get their way, no matter how unwarranted their demands. An astounding 72% of teachers were seen to think that parents too often take their child’s side without being reasonable to what really happened from an adults’ point-of-view. Additionally, many may see the chance of a lawsuit as a way to get rich quick, and therefore blow up the situation bigger than necessary for the potential of a large payment. Since this happens too often within modern practice, it is understandable how both teachers and educators alike would take a disliking of such cases.

Yet, despite these complaints, most educators and educational administrators have been seen in this research to believe that protection of children is worth the annoyance of litigation. Although many educators see lawsuits as taking a personal toll, the research overwhelmingly showed that many thought it was still necessary to have the option to sue to protect those children who have been wronged. The research presented here states that “The teachers and administrators we spoke with for this pilot study were quick to suggest that children sometimes make false charges of abuse, but they were equally quick to acknowledge that genuine abuse — both physical and sexual — could take place in schools,” (Johnson & Duffett 2003:19). Therefore, no matter the negative results of some of the cases that go to litigation and the headache they cause, it is necessary to protect the children.

Overall, both teachers and administrators would rather see modifications to the current system, rather than a full forced revolution of the system. Although it may be frustrating, it does work when needed to protect the lives and interests of the children within America’s schools. Yet, in the case of special education, the system seems to be failing (Katsiyannia & Herbst 2004). Educators within special education are crying for relief, based on the sensitive nature of the various programs involved. Special Education requires more sensitive treatment than the current system allocates.

The study provides insightful information, yet does show some weaknesses in its basic design. It was a very small study, thus limiting its ability to make overall assumptions of the larger population as a whole. The research states, “Instead, we are reporting on a small number of national survey findings combined with a small number of focus groups,” (Johnson & Duffett 2003:2). These small numbers were needed to successfully conduct the study, yet does hinder its universal appeal. Additionally, the study does not offer any recommendations or working strategies. It states that “The purpose of this small-scale study is to raise questions, stimulate discussion and provide hypothesis for further research — not to suggest definite conclusions,” (Johnson & Duffett 2003:2). Therefore, it is not really contributing new and practical strategy into an already large body of work.

Litigation does play a powerful role in the field of education. It has the potential to bring progressive change, yet it also has the potential to frustrate the system and those who work within it. Major changes were brought forth through litigation. However, as this research shows, not all lawsuits bring beneficial change.


Aldridge, Delores P. Litigation and education of blacks: A look at the U.S. Supreme Court. Journal of Negro Education. 47(1):96-112.

Johnson, Jean & Duffett, Ann. (2003). I’m calling my lawyer: How litigation, due process and other regulatory requirements are affecting public education. Public Agenda.

Katsiyannia, Antonis & Herbst, Maria. (2004). Minimize litigation in special education. Intervention in School & Clinic. 40(2):106-117.

State Legislatures. (2004). Litigation in education: For 50 years, courts have been deciding whether states are meeting their constitutional obligations to provide a free and adequate education. Goliath. Retrieved March 21, 2010 from http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-2369255/Litigation-in-education-for-50.html

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