Best Practices for Prevention and Management of Litigation against Educators
Across the nation, we are seeing a steady increase in litigation involving school teachers and administrators. These cases can range from personal injury suits for minor injuries sustained on school property, to very serious allegations of misconduct between teachers and students. Though preventing school-related lawsuits altogether may not be practical, there are several things that school administrators can do to increase the likelihood of a positive resolution of these cases when they inevitably arise. These are just a few best practices I’ve discovered through litigating these sensitive and complex matters.
- Create a positive and safe environment for students and staff.
A priority for every educator is that his or her students are able to learn and grow in a safe and positive environment. Fortunately, there are steps that teachers can take to ensure that their students are protected from foreseeable harm. One piece of advice for teachers is to be familiar with students’ particular needs. For students with special needs such as learning disabilities or physical limitations, this means being well-acquainted with their individualized education programs (IEP). Being acutely aware of the level of individual attention these students require, as well as what activities may or may not be appropriate for them, is key to fostering a safe environment and lowering their risk of harm. Additionally, maintaining open lines of communication with the parents or guardians or your students can help keep you informed of any external factors that may affect your students’ classroom performance or interactions with others.
- Make sure your faculty and staff are well-versed in school policy.
So often when litigating these cases, I see teachers freeze when asked about the specific policies and procedures of their school or district. More often than not, the only time faculty members are trained on school-wide or district-wide policies is during their initial new hire orientations. Teachers might then go several years without ever receiving a refresher on these topics. It’s important to remember that these regulations are designed to protect both students and staff. For that reason, it’s important for administrators to provide regular, thorough training on school policy. This will not only ensure that students are well-protected, but it will also help ensure that your educators are having positive student interactions while upholding these important policies.
- Educate your faculty and staff on what to do when faced with a potential lawsuit.
As any school official will tell you, it is not uncommon for them to receive threats of legal action over a range of issues. In the event that a teacher or administrator is threatened with legitimate legal action, it is important for them to know what their immediate next step ought to be. Never discourage your staff from alerting administration when they are faced with a situation that could result in litigation. This includes completing appropriate incident reports whenever even minor injuries occur on school property and contacting a student’s parent or guardian to keep him or her informed of any incidents involving their child. Finally, should any faculty or staff member receive a demand or be served with process in a lawsuit, alert your insurer immediately. The sooner an adjuster is aware of the situation and can enlist the assistance of counsel, the higher the likelihood that the situation will result in a positive outcome for all involved.
In North Carolina, teachers and school administrators are provided with insurance coverage for most claims regarding actions taken in the course and scope of their employment. In addition, depending on the types of claims included in the action, teachers and administrators may have certain immunity defenses available to them to protect them from litigation. An experienced attorney will be able to walk you through all available defenses, including immunity, and ensure that these defenses are asserted at the appropriate time, protecting educators from the hassle, time and expense of unnecessary litigation.