Lore vs. Law

Principals, along with teachers and the public, often have perceptions about key issues in school law that are remarkably wrong. Yet, principals help reinforce these prevailing misperceptions by sharing them with others, ultimately contributing to misguided practices and policies.

Where do principals get these misperceptions? The sources are many and varied. The mass media report sensationalized stories of school lawsuits, rarely providing intensive investigation and follow-up coverage. Other organizations share a self-interest in promoting the illusion of an “explosion” of education litigation, profiting from the resulting peril of liability. You can throw school insurance companies into this mix. Similarly but more subtly, teacher unions recruit and retain members by offering the dues “benefit” of professional liability insurance.

Tort reform groups and broader legal reform organizations such as Common Good use public school issues to promote government paralysis and a fear of legal consequences. Politicians respond with immunity laws such as the Coverdell Teacher Protection Act. Even the school law profession, ranging from law firms representing school districts to the nonpartisan Education Law Association, benefits from skewed information that emphasizes specialized—and preventive—services. Moreover, special education professionals and other educators often confuse legal requirements with expert recommendations, in their efforts to promote misguided “best practices.”

The principalship is such a multifaceted and demanding position that the incumbents often do not have the time to keep up with the ever-changing and complex set of pertinent legal requirements, thus relying on outdated information and reinforcing peer hearsay. To help alleviate some of that confusion, here are five examples of school lore—misperceptions about the volume and the outcomes of education litigation.

—By Perry Zirkel, the university professor of education and law at Lehigh University. Excerpted from the 1012 issue of Theory to Practice