Ron Isaac’s Commentary: Qualified Immunity for Teachers?

Jun 29, 2021 by

In compliance with principal’s orders, a first-year middle school teacher stands outside the opened door of his class to keep an eye on students in the crowded hallway going to their next subject period.  In doing so, he cannot uninterruptedly watch students behind his back in his own room where two students have gotten into an altercation in which nobody was hurt. Thereafter, the lesson proceeds uneventfully.

The students shake hands and all appears normal. The teacher hears nothing further about the presumably forgotten minor skirmish until a few weeks later when  he gets a knock on the door of his residence. He is being sued for several million dollars by the parents of one of the students.

The teacher panicked.  He feared the suit could annihilate his finances, future and career. I told him not to worry.

Frivolous and malicious lawsuits are far more our national pastime than is any sport. They are churned out on an industrial scale and the merits of the cases often have little or no bearing on the outcome.  There is a formula to how these cases are handled that guarantees settlements ( usually for reduced sums)  and an easy commission. 

So this framed teacher, an easy target for an unscrupulous parent and tainted system, could have had something to worry about, despite his plain innocence.  It happens all the time.

But “qualified immunity” saved his skin and his sanity.  He was not held personally liable and the City paid out a few thousand dollars to the instigators of this strictly nuisance lawsuit, just to make it go away.  That is standard operating procedure in New York City.   It’s obviously not ideal, as justice should be meted out justly, in theory, but at least it didn’t take bread from this teacher’s dinner table.

“Qualified immunity” is rarely discussed in relation to educators.  It is far more commonly argued in connection with police officers, who sometimes have been found guilty of reckless, fatal misjudgements, from which they walked away unscathed and even untouched by personal accountability.

It is debatable whether it is realistically possible for police to do their jobs, with its attendant hazards of violent, often unpredictable confrontation, if officers know they can be personally held liable for astronomical damages awarded by, in their view, juries manipulated and stacked against them.

That’s a separate conversation.

But although teachers, like everybody else, should not be insulated from the consequences of their behavior and there should be no refuge for criminality, they should be shielded by limited “qualified immunity” .

Ron Isaac

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