by Gene Royer - a voice of reason in a babbling society. March 9th, 2001
I was not surprised when I contacted the administration of a school district recently impacted by a shooting tragedy and found it to be courteously but coolly defensive. --All of which may be putting a blur on our heretofore 20/20 hindsight.
School boards are the trustee owners of the school district-which means they own the district in trusteeship for the real owners, the taxpayers; and boards, which oversee these beleaguered districts, have suddenly found themselves in a paradox. On the one hand, they benevolently desire to remove a glaring contribution to school violence and make right a wrong; but, on the other, they must be legally protective of their ownership. That is, they must protect the assets of the school district--which belong to the taxpayers in general--from lawsuit payments, which would be paid to taxpayer plaintiffs in specific.
Put more simply, parents of slain and/or injured children are likely entitled to damages under the law for negligence by schools-if such negligence can be proved. For school boards and their administrations to honestly admit the past existence of conditions, which might have contributed, to the cause of the violence (teasing, bullying, harassing, etc), would leave their constituent owners, i.e., the taxpayers, vulnerable to open-ended litigation. After all, the school district has no money of its own except that which the taxpayers in general give it
For this reason, the administrator I communicated with staunchly resisted any insinuation that the school or the students were in any way to blame for, or contributed to, the violent actions of the perpetrators. As I said in my opening statement, I was not surprised. But I was saddened.
I remain saddened because this seemingly necessary CYA attitude.this rush to circle the wagons for the sake of damage control may stymie much-needed regulation of the kind of behavior which may have spawned the tragedy. For can schools easily deny such behavior existed and then overtly begin to regulate against it? Hardly.
So, on one side we have dedicated educators and administrators eager to do what is best for the children, and on the other side we have attorneys and trial lawyers who are sworn to their obligations as well: to protect their defendant client from litigation, and/or obtain as large a monetary verdict as possible for their aggrieved plaintiff.
That is not a knock on lawyers, as that profession has taken it on the chin by heavier hitters than me. Lawyers are a necessity (perhaps as are helpful bacteria in our alimentary canal), with a sworn duty that is often a double-edged sword. And in today's climate of rapid societal evolution, school districts cannot do without them.
School boards have yet another factor to consider which falls squarely in the realm of politics and borders on the distasteful. No one who ever sat on a school board openly strove to get themselves voted off. For that reason, board members are equally loathe to admit negligent wrongdoing-as to do so would be an act of political suicide. Who among a constituency can, in good conscience, vote to reseat a board which has cost the taxpayers millions in damages through its negligent stewardship of the public purse?
As other writers have pointed out, there are no quick and simple answers to which all can agree. But all do agree on this: It will also not be quickly and simply resolved.
Watch this space.