With the reality of school violence, are teachers and educational administrators “cops?” Are they subject to the same legal and liability standards as law enforcement officers? These days it seems that the maintaining of order supersedes the educational function in classrooms.

Difficult students, complaining parents, student –to-student interactions of school bullying, sexual assaults in the classroom, violent outbursts and verbal and sometimes physical assaults sound like a “day on the job” of a police officer, but unfortunately are becoming reality for teachers and educational officials.

When a “public official” acts under the “color of law” they are scrutinized by the federal courts for constitutional violations. Federal law suits are expensive to defend, extremely expensive should one lose and are extremely emotionally draining. Police officers are sued in federal court on a regular basis for violating numerous amendments of the constitution and these law suits drag on for years.

Police officers are considered to be public officials, and police administrators as well as street police officers can end up in federal court. Well guess what… as a public school educator you are a “public official” as well! You can be sued in federal court for violating the constitutional guarantees of one of your students.

The “principal” is figuratively the “police chief” and you the teacher are the “police officer” and both of you could be liable. A recent 7th Circuit Appeals Court case (http://llrmi.com/articles/legal_update/7th_disorderly_parents.shtml) reaffirmed this notion. The case focused on the actions of a principal, but could it be that the actions of a teacher or instructor could also fall under the constitutional liability umbrella?

Well, only time and legal creativity will tell but I think the smart thing to do is to prepare for this eventuality.

Obviously, disciplinary actions could violate the 14th Amendment “due process” or “equal protection under the law” clauses. Actions of teachers that are “deliberately indifferent” could also fall under that amendment. Examples of that might be:

* Issuing punishment without observing proper protocols or ignoring a “bullying situation” (consider the recent student suicide case of Phoebe Prince).

* Searches of students or their possessions could violate the 4th amendment.

* Physical actions taken by teachers to prevent violence or to restrain could violate the 4th amendment.

In the case I mentioned above, the simple act of calling the police was considered to be a constitutional violation. Also in that case, the parents were involved (as they often are in classrooms) and actually were the instigators and the inability to control them led to the police call.

I am an educator who also happens to be a police officer and thus I am resigned to the issue of constitutional liability. But if you are an educator and unaccustomed to being scrutinized constitutionally, welcome to my world.

Prevention by increasing your awareness of the issue and by increasing your skill level may be the only tools on your “duty belt” that will protect you from charges of unconstitutional behavior. Since changing occupations is not feasible for most of us, proper training in how to handle, de-escalate and control ourselves and others is in order.

It is of utmost importance to have the skills to handle this eventuality. Teachers must be prepared not only to understand and deal with conflict, but also have a legal foundation and basis upon which you can defend your eventual actions. Rather than wait and hope that these issues may not surface in your venue the smart thing to do would be to begin to prepare.

Bob Willis
Robert C. Willis is a Criminal Justice Instructor at the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, Wis. He has been a law enforcement officer and trainer for over 25 years, and has consulted and testified in federal and state court cases in 35 states on a variety of law enforcement topics. He can be contacted at Robert.willis@nwtc.edu.