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Teachers walk a fine line in a litigious society

It’s a well-known fact that duct tape can fix almost anything, but when it comes to the classroom, there are times when the silver tape is not the solution.

For example:

1. Excessive talking — Don’t duct tape a child’s mouth closed.

2. Forgetfulness — Don’t duct tape a note to a child’s forehead.

3. Hyperactivity — Don’t duct tape a child to his chair.

Reading those rules, people may be thinking, ‘Well, of course not!’, but each of those situations happened in a school district somewhere in the country, and the result was a lawsuit filed by parents.

Sarah Wannemuehler, a nationally-known speaker and educator, said those are just a few tales among thousands that she uses to warn teachers about the dangers of a litigious society.

She noted that 11 percent of all lawsuits in the United States involve schools, and 95 percent of those involve a teacher. Most deal with negligence; injuries which can include physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual damage.

“Anyone can sue anyone for anything,” she cautioned in talks given to diocesan teachers recently. Her goal is to educate teachers on “how not to get sued, so you can do what you want to do, which is teach.”

A lot of it seems like common sense:

Don’t light candles in your room, even if the children do smell bad. Don’t stretch cords across the floor. Don’t stay inside to grade papers when you’re supposed to be on recess duty.

“She just kept emphasizing to use common sense,” said Pati Arseneau, an art teacher at St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton. “Overall, we learned how serious it is to always be aware of safety and security with kids.”

Technology is also a big problem.

Wannemuehler has endless stories about troubles caused by emails, tweets, texts, camera phones and more. She gave an example of a teacher who posted on Facebook that she had to “go grade the papers of my retarded students.” She was fired. Her claim of privacy was denied. Wannemuehler stressed that there is no such thing as privacy when it comes to social media.

This often comes as a surprise to those in the school system, because people believe their personal freedoms are protected. The truth is that constitutional rights are superseded by the school contract that every teacher, student and parent signs each year, Wannemuehler said.

Signing the school handbook is agreeing to the school rules, which take precedence over individual rights, such as freedom of speech or the pursuit of happiness. So if a school says no to beards, or multiple piercings, or plain white T’s — they have the law on their side.

The same is true for the Catholic Church. When educators sign a contract with a Catholic school, they agree to live by the tenets of the Church.

“Teachers can’t express beliefs contrary to the Catholic Church,” she explained, such as supporting women priests, or marriage for gay couples, or co-habitating before marriage.

In the final analysis, Wannemuehler said teachers have to judge every day what is right, not only for themselves but for their students. She hopes they will always consider what God sees, how He would handle it, and how He would feel about what they do.

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