January 6, 2006
PROTECTION FOR TEACHERS FROM FALSE ACCUSATIONS
By: Judith Lohman, Chief Analyst
You asked if Connecticut or any other state has a program to protect teachers from financial distress or damage to their reputations from false accusations of impropriety by students.
According to a survey of state laws in the Education Commission of the States' database, no state has a program to protect teachers from damages from false accusations of impropriety by students. But some laws provide limited protection.
A 2001 federal law limits teachers' liability for punitive damages for certain noncriminal acts or omissions in disciplinary situations that harm a student. It applies to lawsuits against teachers filed on or after April 8, 2002. Connecticut law requires school boards to indemnify teachers against damages and legal fees from lawsuits for actions that are not willful, wanton, malicious, or outside the scope of their employment. A vetoed California law would have made a student's knowing false report of sexual assault by a school employee grounds for a school superintendent to suspend the student from school. Iowa allows a teacher to collect reasonable monetary damages against a plaintiff if the teacher is found in a civil action to have been wrongfully accused of improper physical contact with a student.
The National Education Association and its local affiliates also provide liability insurance for member teachers. The policies pay damages and legal fees up to specified limits for members accused of noncriminal misconduct.
The federal Teacher Protection Act of 2001 protects school board members, teachers, and other school employees against punitive damages when they take reasonable actions against students to maintain order, discipline, and an appropriate educational environment (P.L. 107-110, §§2366-8). The act applies to states that receive federal Title I funds for education, which all states do.
The act prohibits a court from awarding punitive damages for harm caused by a teacher's act or omission if:
1. the teacher acted within the scope of his employment;
2. the teacher's actions were legal under federal, state, or local law or regulations;
3. the teacher acted to exert or further control or discipline or to maintain order in a classroom or school;
4. the teacher was properly licensed, certified, or authorized;
5. the plaintiff does not establish by clear and convincing evidence that harm was caused by the teacher's willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, or conscious and flagrant indifference to the student's rights or safety; and
6. the harm was not caused by the teacher's operation of a motor vehicle, vessel, or aircraft that requires a state license to operate.
Connecticut law requires school boards to hold teachers harmless from claims or lawsuits for acts, including those resulting in death, injury, damage, or destruction, performed while discharging their duties, if the acts were not wanton, reckless, or malicious. Boards must also pay to defend their teachers against claims or lawsuits alleging malicious, wanton, or willful acts or acts beyond their authority (ultra
vires). If convicted of these malicious, wanton, willful, or ultra vires acts, a teacher must reimburse the board for expenses it incurred (CGS § 10-235).
A search of the Education Commission of the States' state law database yielded two relevant laws in other states, one of which was vetoed and did not take effect.
A 2005 California act limited a school superintendent's authority to suspend or recommend expulsion for a student by enumerating the offenses for which such a penalty could be imposed. The act specified that a student could be suspended, but not expelled, for knowingly making a false accusation to a school employee that another school employee committed or attempted to commit a sexual assault, as defined in various sections of the state's penal code, against a pupil (A.B. 605). The governor vetoed the act in September, 2005.
Iowa law bars school employees from administering corporal punishment to students but specifies that an employee may have reasonable and necessary physical contact with a student under certain enumerated circumstances, including encouraging, supporting, or disciplining the student or protecting other students, employees, or school property.
The Iowa law allows a court to award any school employee who is determined in a civil action to have been wrongfully accused of violating the corporal punishment ban “reasonable monetary damages, in light of the circumstances involved, against the party bringing the action” (Iowa Code § 280.21 (3)).
LIABILITY AND LEGAL DEFENSE INSURANCE
The National Education Association (NEA), a nationwide teacher's union, has a professional liability insurance program for its members that covers them when they are accused of misconduct. The Educators Employment Liability Program provides up to $1 million of coverage for lawsuits and reimburses member for up to $35,000 in attorney's fees if they are exonerated of criminal charges.
Some local NEA chapters have liability coverage exceeding the national NEA's. For example, California's Northwest Professional Educators provides a maximum of $2 million per claim ($3 million aggregate) for acts arising out members' educational duties and also pays up to $50,000 ($100,000 aggregate) in legal fees for an attorney the member chooses. Coverage does not apply if the member is found guilty of a crime.