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Court Upholds Federal Teacher-Protection Law

A federal statute meant to give teachers and school administrators protection from legal liability over their efforts to maintain safe and orderly schools has been upheld against a constitutional challenge.

The Missouri Supreme Court, ruling in a lawsuit in which a student who had been slashed by another student sought to hold a school superintendent liable, held that the federal law was a valid exercise of Congress' powers under the spending clause in Article I of the Constitution.

The court upheld the Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Protection Act, which was passed as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The law aims to protect education professionals from being sued over efforts to undertake "reasonable actions to maintain order, discipline, and an appropriate educational environment." The law is named for the U.S. senator from Georgia who championed it.

Missouri's highest court ruled this week in a suit brought by Craig Dydell, who was a student at Central High School in Kansas City, Mo., in 2005 when he was slashed in the neck by another student in the cafeteria. Dydell survived the attack, and he sued Kansas City Schools Superintendent Bernard Taylor for negligence over the incident.

Dydell claimed that the superintendent failed to disclose to teachers that the other student had the potential for violence because the student had been expelled from a Kansas City charter school for attempting to bring a knife to school.

Taylor raised the Coverdell Act as a defense, which prompted Dydell to challenge the federal law as unconstitutional. Dydell argued that Congress lacked the authority under the spending clause to coerce the states into recognizing legal immunity for teachers and administrators over efforts to keep schools safe.

A state trial court rejected Dydell's arguments, and in its Feb. 8 decision in Dydell v. Taylor, the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously affirmed.

"The Coverdell Act's requirement that Missouri provide ... immunity to teachers in return for federal education funds is hardly novel," says the opinion by Judge Laura Denvir Stith. "It is an example of Congress' traditional use of its spending power to further broad policy objectives by conditioning receipt of federal moneys upon compliance by the recipient with federal statutory and administrative directives."

The court noted that under the federal law, states may nullify its application merely by passing legislation saying so, without the loss of any federal education funds.

"There is no stick at all, only carrots," the opinion says. "There is no coercion at all."

The court also rejected arguments by Dydell that the superintendent was not protected by the Coverdell Act because he failed to comply with its language that his actions conform to federal, state, and local laws in furtherance of maintaining order and control in schools. Dydell said the superintendent failed to comply with a district policy requiring any portion of a special education student's individualized education plan that mentioned potentially violent behavior be shared with teachers.

The court said while the student who slashed Dydell was in special education and had an IEP, the Coverdell Act didn't impose a duty on the superintendent to make sure that the student's IEP detail his potential for violence (which it apparently didn't).

(Hat Tip to NSBA's Legal Clips blog for pointing out the decision.)

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