Teachers' union leaders in the Alpine School District may consider suing if the board of education approves a policy that would limit student-teacher interaction.
Bart Farnsworth, president of the Alpine Education Association, said some members of the union's board of directors have discussed taking legal action against the district, because they believe the proposed policy, which will likely be voted on at a board meeting Tuesday, makes teachers too vulnerable to lawsuits.Farnsworth stressed district administrators have been working with the union to alter the policy, but some believe that regardless of its wording, the policy's intent is to transfer liability from the district to employees.
"I think the district is backing away from the teachers a little bit," Farnsworth said. "I've talked to a lot of teachers who are very concerned. They're afraid that once the policy is approved, the district will say `Hey, it's your problem. If a lawsuit is filed. We warned you.' "
The proposed policy would require teachers to obtain permission from their principal before meeting with students outside the regular school day, and children would not be permitted to visit their teachers' homes or travel with them alone. Further, the policy says, "District employees shall avoid being alone at any time with an individual student unless it is necessary in the performance of professional duties within the scope of employment." Teachers would be permitted to give students one-on-one instruction in the classroom before and after school.
Farnsworth said three or four teachers have been threatened with lawsuits this year alone, though none of the complaints had legal merit. However, an Alpine Elementary School fifth grade teacher was fired last May after she was charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors after two of her students spent an evening in her home to baby-sit her children.
According to the former teacher, the students asked a sexual question at one point in the evening, and rather than answer it herself she gave the children a Masters and Johnson sexual textbook to read. Parents filed charges and the teacher was later ordered to undergo psychiatric counseling.
Farnsworth said most teachers wouldn't make the mistake of having students in their homes for activities like babysitting, but there is a chance legitimate student-teacher interactions could be misinterpreted.
Teachers don't disagree with the idea behind the scope of employment policy, he said, but they don't want the district to leave them solely liable if their actions are questioned.
Meantime, Alpine administrators have their hands full wording the policy so that parents don't object to it. Superintendent Steven Baugh said he's had a number of calls from parents who are concerned that students will have no access to their teachers outside the classroom.
The original wording of the policy left no possibility for students to visit their teachers' homes for any reason. Baugh said the problem with that is that some teachers work with their students in other capacities, such as Scouting and church programs.
Several coaches and student leadership advisers also have students to their homes for planning sessions. Those activities are appropriate, Baugh said, and because officials could not find a way to word the policy so it would permit those things and yet prevent inappropriate social activities, the provision will likely be dropped from the policy and be placed instead in Alpine's rules and regulations.
"When you put it in policy, you prohibit forevermore all sorts of things," Baugh said. "We think we'll have a fine policy with some revisions, and we'd like to put it in place. There is no necessary activity that is occurring that can't continue under this policy. The overriding thing is we want to help kids."