For about nine months out of the year, most children are in school for several hours a day, five days a week. It's a long time, and most parents don't think twice about trusting their child's safety and well-being to school staff, especially teachers. Unfortunately, that trust is sometimes misplaced or abused.
In May 2008, a kindergarten student was in his Florida classroom with about 16 fellow students and their teacher, Wendy Portillo. The class was like thousands of other public school classes across the US. But he has autism, and while it's not unusual for special needs students to go to regular public schools, this was no ordinary day.
On this particular day, Portillo forced the student to stand in front of his classmates and listen to their criticisms of him. He was called names. Portillo then the class to vote on whether to exclude the student the classroom. He lost 14-2.
Outraged, his mother filed a federal lawsuit against Portillo and school officials. She claimed he was discriminated against under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and suffered emotional injuries. In late 2010, the school and others agreed to settle the lawsuit.
If the settlement is approved by the court, the student will receive $350,000, and Portillo will be suspended from teaching for one year.
True, abuse or neglect of students by teachers and school personnel isn't commonplace, but it does happen, and it may take many forms, such as:
- Excessive use of physical force or corporal punishment
- Restrictions or violations of students' civil rights, such as unreasonable searches and seizures of students or their property, or restrictions on students' freedom of speech
- Failing to address the special needs of students like the Florida kindergartner
What You Can Do
You and your child don't have to tolerate such behavior. Although it may be different depending on whether a public or private school is involved, as general rule, many legal rights don't disappear simply because your student walks into a school. For instance, personal injury lawsuits may be filed if a student is injured by physical abuse or inadequate supervision by a teacher.
If you suspect your child - or another student - has been mistreated at school:
- Contact school officials immediately. Talk to officials at the school and at the local school board of district
- Get to know the disciplinary procedures for students and staff in the school district
- Request an investigation, and be persistent. Ask for a formal, written explanation of the investigation's findings
If you can't get anywhere dealing with the school or district directly, consider talking to an attorney. Sometimes a lawsuit is the only way to get results. In the Florida case, the school district was made aware of problem and, hopefully, is taking steps to fix it.
The teacher or staff member involved should learn a lesson, too. That's not always the case, though. Not long before the Florida suit was settled, Portillo was again accused of discriminating against a student with a disability.
The point is, as a parent, it's up to you to stand up for your child. Stay engaged with her and keep informed about her experiences at school. Ask, "How was your day," and meet with her teachers as often as possible. If something doesn't sound right, take steps to make it right.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Does a school have to honor my request for any records about a teacher's past disciplinary problems?
- Do I have to file compliant with any government agency or office before I file a lawsuit against a teacher?
- Can I have criminal charges filed against a teacher or school official?