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Lawsuits drain school dollars

Legal matters siphon away money that Hillsborough and Pinellas school districts could better utilize in the classroom.

By MELANIE AVE
Published February 2, 2004

In Pinellas County, two Palm Harbor University High School baseball players sued the school district claiming they were wrongly booted from school because of a roughhousing incident that occurred on a team road trip.

In Hillsborough County, Robinson High School senior Nicole "Nikki" Youngblood filed suit after her picture was left out of the school yearbook when she refused to wear a feminine drape instead of a shirt and tie as she wished.

These two cases only scratch the surface of lawsuits filed against local public school districts on an almost daily basis. More and more, offenses that used to be settled inside the schoolhouse now end up at the courthouse.

The result, educators say, is less money for learning.

"We spend millions and millions on attorney fees every year that has nothing to do with the classroom," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "Every lawsuit we have to defend is money that doesn't get to the classroom."

There are discrimination suits filed by students and teachers alike. Disputes over school construction. A large number come from people injured in school bus accidents.

Some, all parties agree, are legitimate complaints. Others border on the ridiculous, attorneys say.

In 1985, Seminole High School twins sued the Pinellas County School Board after being forced to share valedictorian honors with a third student. In Hillsborough several years ago, a man sued the school district after he rode his motorcycle around the chained track at Hillsborough High School after hours and broke his arm. The case was dismissed.

"Lots of people file suit," said Crosby Few, Hillsborough School Board attorney. "A lot of them are frivolous."

School districts have long been easy targets for lawsuits, with constitutional issues such as free speech and religion at the heart of many challenges. Lawsuits, in fact, helped end the segregation of students by race in the public schools and ensured the adequate education of children with disabilities.

As education has become more complex with the pressures of achievement tests and accountability measures, the soil is even more ripe for legal challenges, some educators say. A 1999 study by the American Tort Reform Association found that 25 percent of school principals said they had faced a lawsuit or court settlement in the last two years.

"The school system is a big target," said John Bowen, Pinellas County School Board attorney. "Attorneys see it as a big pocket to go after."

Last year, Hillsborough spent $926,650 on legal fees, the largest bills dealing with employee disputes and real estate and construction issues. In Pinellas, the district spent nearly $1.3-million, with the most spent on liability and workers' compensation claims.

Zero-tolerance policies - in which students can be suspended or expelled for one offense - have also resulted in more lawsuits. One such case made headlines three years ago.

Two Palm Harbor University High School baseball players, Chris Pachik and Brian Pafundi, sued the school district after they were suspended for 10 days and reassigned to an alternative school for holding down a teammate during a team trip.

Believing they were the victims of a heavy-handed principal who used poor judgment, they tried to get their punishment overturned. They sued to attend their graduation but were denied.

Their attorney, Sherwood Coleman, said zero-tolerance policies leave no wiggle room for principals to determine the appropriate punishment. They are given definite actions to take for a whole host of offenses.

"Now you make the principal the real linchpin in the process," Coleman said. "That's a tremendous amount of power to put in the hands of the principal."

Sometimes schools could resolve complaints against them without going to court.

That's the belief of Karen Doering, staff attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in the case of Nikki Youngblood.

Lawsuits, she said, are always the last resort.

"Our first effort is always to contact the School Board and see what we can do to resolve this," she said. "In Nikki Youngblood's case, at some point, they drew a line in the sand."

In the fall of 2001, Youngblood was not allowed to pose for her senior yearbook picture in a jacket and tie because female students were required to wear a scoop-necked drape. Male students, however, could wear a white shirt, tie and dark jacket.

Youngblood said the policy was discriminatory because, as a lesbian, she does not wear traditional female clothes.

Her attorney, Doering, said she asked the Hillsborough School Board to change its policy and allow students to wear professional attire no matter their gender. Her request was turned down.

Doering sued in federal court, something she said the school district brought on itself. The case is pending before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"It's a horrible waste of money," she said. "It's shocking the School Board would choose to spend resources this way instead of coming to a number of reasonable compromises."

Attorneys say school districts have no choice but to spend thousands for lawyers.

Some districts, like Pinellas, have in-house legal staffs. Others, like Hillsborough, hire attorneys on a retainer. Almost all dole out certain cases to outside firms that specialize in negligence, workers' compensation and environmental claims.

The number of suits also can be linked to an increase in education laws, which blossomed in the 1960s.

Bowen, a school attorney since 1973, points to two books on a shelf in his office. Both were written on existing education laws by E. Edmund Reutter Jr. The first was published in 1960 and had 96 pages. The second came out 10 years later with 654 pages.

Today, Bowen's law library holds seven volumes of education laws.

"Look at all the laws we have," he said, referring to statutes addressing everything from freedom of expression to the rights of disabled students. "With the amount of legislation there is, there's no way a school district can get away without having an attorney."

While most everyone agrees the money spent on lawsuits takes funds away from the classroom, whether legal claims have undermined the education system is debatable.

The American Tort Reform Association's survey found that 57 percent of educators said lawsuits affected school programs.

In the book, Judging School Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authority, the authors argue that the hundreds of lawsuits challenging school disciplinary procedures have hurt the quality of public education.

One of the authors, Richard Arum, an associate professor of sociology at New York University, said just the threat of lawsuits keeps teachers from taking charge of their classrooms.

Indeed, while the number of lawsuits climbs, threats to sue are even more common.

Yvonne Lyons, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, said teachers are often threatened by angry parents when they give out less than perfect grades to some students.

"When all else fails, that's what you come back with, "Well I'm going to sue,' " she said. "There are some parents who make this threat every single year to every single teacher their child has.

"Usually it's just frustration. New teachers, it just really scares them to death."

With many counties beginning new school choice student assignment plans, and graduation and grade promotion now attached to state achievement tests in Florida, some attorneys expect even more lawsuits. Case in point: The Largo father who sued the state after his son failed the test needed for him to receive a standard diploma. The father wanted to see the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and his son's answer sheet.

An appeals court said he had no right to see the test. The case, which may be headed to the Florida Supreme Court, could force the state to make the FCAT available to parents, something state officials said could cost taxpayers millions.

Blanton, of the school boards association, sees no end to the proliferation of lawsuits as long as legislatures are making new laws and law schools are graduating attorneys.

"I don't think there's any limit to what type of lawsuit we face," he said. "The only advice I give (to school districts) is stick to your policies and do what's right."

- Melanie Ave can be reached at 813 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 2, 2004, 01:30:36]


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