“I’m Calling My Lawyer!”
Educational leaders hear this all the time. Often, these are upset parents who believe schools mishandled a situation with their child. Sometimes, these are employees who believe they were wronged by the district. Occasionally, these are students who believe they were mistreated by staff.
In most cases, “I’m calling my lawyer!” declarations go nowhere.
But what happens a parent, employee, or student actually follow through on their threat?
The first time I found out someone was taking legal action as a direct result of my handling of a situation, I was paranoid. I was in my fifth year as a school administrator - and although many angry individuals had threatened to contact a lawyer - this was the first time someone carried out their promise.
When I found out the individual had taken legal action, many thoughts went through my head:
“Who exactly is getting sued?”
“Will I have to pay money?”
“What can I do to fight this?”
“Am I going to get fired?”
“Will I go to court?”
While I am a natural worrier, I was worried for good reason: No one ever told me what happens when people take legal action against you. Not once was this topic discussed in my educational leadership coursework, administrative mentoring program, or as an administrative team.
Sure, we had discussed the "classic" school law cases (Brown v. Board of Education, Tinker v. Des Moines, etc.) in our master's classes, but never did we talk about what happens when you as the school leader find yourself in a legal battle.
The following paragraphs share key ideas about the litigation process. My hope is these concepts fill in the blanks for what others have failed to mention, while helping you avoid the distress I've experienced in my personal journey.
Educational leaders must understand that schools are no longer given the benefit of the doubt. Whereas in the past they may have taken responsibility for their actions ... parents, employees, and students have discovered it's much easier to blame the school. So, when things aren't going their way in a disagreement with school officials, these people resort to “I’m calling my lawyer!” as the ultimate mic drop.
And who could blame them? Leaders who enter the profession quickly realize they are micromanaged by bureaucratic red tape. Rather than be trusted to use their professional judgement, school leaders are governed by employee handbooks, school board policies, and state code. Throw in the volatile health, political, and social justice landscape, and it’s nearly impossible for school leaders to know what they “should be doing.”
Certainly, there are times when legal action is necessary. I cringe when I see the unethical and inequitable treatment of parents, employees, and students in some school districts. When I come across these horrific stories, I can’t help but cheer for those who push back against districts and hope those ineffective school leaders suffer for their ineptitude.
But what about the rest of us? What about those who are genuinely trying to do what is best for students and employees?
Unfortunately, even the most meticulous rule-followers are sitting ducks for lawyers and their clients. In addition to the laundry list of procedures that must be flawlessly executed, school districts are juicy targets for lawyers because of one thing: money.
“Money?" you may be thinking. "There’s no money in schools!”
Whereas most school leaders believe schools are underfunded, this does not diminish the fact that schools are multi-million-dollar organizations. In the United States, total expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools are approximately $800 billion dollars. When divided across roughly 14,000 school districts nationwide, the average public school district operates a budget north of $50 million dollars.
To summarize: unrealistic standards + guaranteed funding = easy target for litigation
The numbers support this claim. Between 1907 and 1976, federal cases litigated against schools increased by 550%. More recently, federal civil rights lawsuits against districts doubled between 2013 and 2017. Incidentally, websites such as How Do I Sue a School District? and How to Sue a School: 8 Reasons You Should provide step-by-step advice for individuals looking to sue a district.
What a time to be alive.
So, let’s stay you suddenly find yourself entangled in a legal situation. What can you expect? Below are five general takeaways from my personal experiences. Keep in mind that every state and situation is different:
“Who exactly is getting sued?” If you were the school leader responsible for the event in question, there is a good chance you will be named - along with the school district - in the lawsuit. While this is scary, understand that most school leaders experience at least one lawsuit during their career. Even more importantly, realize that school leaders are not individually responsible for any settlement or monetary award.
“Will I have to pay money?” Assuming you haven't made a colossal error in judgement, take comfort in knowing that districts cover lawsuit costs. Schools have special funds - separate from the all-important "general fund" - designed to pay for legal settlements. Attorney fees and others costs associated with lawsuits are also covered using these funds or the district’s liability insurance carrier.
“What can I do to fight this?” When dealing with a lawsuit, school leaders will be asked to provide documentation of the incident. Therefore, it’s vital that school leaders get in the habit of proactively keeping detailed notes of situations that could potentially lead to litigation. “Well, I’m just going to go back and write down what happened,” you might think upon waking to a lawsuit. Unfortunately, legal counsel will be asking for contemporaneous notes - documentation made at the time or shortly after an event occurs. Going back and detailing what happened several months after the incident likely won’t hold up too well in the eyes of the judge.
“Am I going to get fired” Rarely do employees lose their job as a result of a parent, employee, or student suing the school district. Obviously, we can all think of extreme cases when school employees make severe errors in judgement. But those incidents are few and far between. Rather than fear for their job, school leaders should use lawsuits as learning opportunities and commit to avoiding similar mistakes in the future.
“Will I go to court?” Only 5 percent of “civil” cases actually make it to court, meaning most school leaders who experience lawsuits never participate in a trial. So what happens the other 95 percent of the time? Best case scenario, the judge throws out the lawsuit. But in most situations, the school district will reach a monetary settlement with the individual.
“Wait - most school districts reach settlements?” you may be thinking. “What if you did nothing wrong?”
This is quite possibly the biggest takeaway from this section. Even when school leaders follow best practice and keep detailed documentation, there is still a chance that school districts reach settlements with plaintiffs. In these cases, settlements are reached for nuisance value; that is, to avoid allocating time and financial resources away from student learning to defend a lawsuit.
Most school leaders take things personally when a lawsuit ends in a settlement. This is understandable, as there is widespread belief that a settlement is an admission of guilt. However, school leaders should understand that lawsuits are the "cost of doing business" in today's increasingly cynical world.
Whereas getting mixed up in litigation may feel yucky, as long as school leaders continue following best practice and do what is best for kids ... these things have a karma-like way of sorting themselves out.
Several months after my first lawsuit, I heard we settled with the individual. At the time, I felt terrible about my mistake.
However, now I look back at this case as a valuable learning moment in my career development.
Not only did I learn how to avoid getting myself into the same situation in the future ... I also learned that lawsuits are an unfortunate - and oftentimes unavoidable - way of life for school leaders.
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