Published by MoASBO, March 2012

Congress, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, enacted the Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Protection Act of 2001 (“the Act”).  Specifically, the Act’s purpose is to “provide teachers, principals and other school professionals the tools they need to undertake reasonable actions to maintain order, discipline, and an appropriate educational environment.”  The Act aims to shield most school personnel from liability from claims of negligence.  Under the Act, a “teacher” is defined to include not only a teacher or instructor per se, but also an individual board of education member, administrator, educational professional, or a non-educational professional whose job entails maintaining discipline in the school.  The Act does not, however, apply to  school districts as an individual entity.

The goal of the Act is to place limits on liability for school personnel.  As such, the Act states that the “teacher” shall not be liable for harm caused by an act or omission of the teacher on behalf of the school if –

(1) the teacher was acting within the scope of the teacher’s employment or responsibilities to a school or governmental entity;

(2) the actions of the teacher were carried out in conformity with Federal, State, and local laws (including rules and regulations) in furtherance of efforts to control, discipline, expel, or suspend a student or maintain order or control in the classroom or school;

(3) if appropriate or required, the teacher was properly licensed, certified, or authorized by the appropriate authorities for the activities or practice involved in the State in which the harm occurred, where the activities were or practice was undertaken within the scope of the teacher’s responsibilities;

(4) the harm was not caused by willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed by the teacher; and,

(5) the harm was not caused by the teacher operating a motor vehicle….

20 U.S.C. §6736(a)

The immunity protections are limited under the Act, in that the law specifically states that immunity shall not apply to any misconduct that:

  1. constitutes a crime of violence or act of international terrorism for which the defendant has been convicted in a court;
  2. involves a sexual offense for which the defendant has been convicted in any court;
  3. involves misconduct for which the defendant has been found to have violated a Federal or State civil rights law; or,
  4. where the defendant was under the influence of intoxicating alcohol or any drug at the time of misconduct.

The Missouri Supreme Court recently recognized the constitutionality of the Coverdell Act and its specific application to Missouri public school teachers and administrators in Dydell v. Taylor, 332 S.W.3d 848 (Mo. banc 2011).  In Dydell, the plaintiff student was attacked by another student using a box-cutter knife at school which resulted in significant injuries to the student. The student filed suit against the superintendent for negligent supervision.  The superintendent filed a summary judgment motion arguing that he was protected from suit under the Act.  The trial court granted the superintendent’s motion, and the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s holding that the Coverdell Act applies in Missouri because Missouri accepts federal education funding and did not enact legislation opting out of the Act.  Additionally, the Court found that the superintendent met the requirements under the Act, and therefore, the Act shielded him from liability.

In Dydell, after first determining the Coverdell Act was a permissible use of Congress’ spending power, the Supreme Court then considered the application of the Act to the superintendent.  Specifically, the Court considered the student’s argument that the superintendent was not eligible for immunity under the Coverdell Act because his actions were not in conformity with “local laws (including rules and regulations),” as the superintendent allegedly failed to follow the district’s internal written policies.  Rejecting the student’s argument, the Missouri Supreme Court expressly found there was no authority to support the student’s proposition that the district’s internal policies were the equivalent of “local laws” as set forth in the Coverdell Act.  The Supreme Court specifically recognized that the district’s policy in question had “no force of law, and its violation does not constitute a crime or infraction.”

Accordingly, the Coverdell Act is an important federal statute and its potential effect on Missouri school personnel is great and far-reaching.  Now that the Missouri Supreme Court has affirmatively found its applicability to Missouri school personnel, the legal landscape has narrowed in terms of the scope of liability for many school employees.  While the Act will, most likely, not alter the number of lawsuits against school personnel, it will strengthen the shield protecting school employees who take reasonable actions in the course of their duties.

© 2012 Mickes Goldman O’Toole, LLC