Anthony Caprio was working as a substitute teacher at Hillhouse High School in New Haven when a fight broke out between two students.
Caprio went over to break up the scuffle but ended up on the receiving end. One of the 17-year-old girls who was fighting began assaulting him, causing a broken bone around his eye and injuries to his wrist, back and shoulder. When the dust settled, Caprio filed a lawsuit against the New Haven Board of Education for lost pay and emotional distress. In the wake of that and other lawsuits that have been filed from teachers injured in school house fights, lawmakers are looking at a proposed bill to keep teachers out of harm’s way.
An attorney representing the teacher’s union in the state says the injuries Caprio suffered are all too common. Part of the reason is that teachers feel obligated to break up fights as a condition of their employment. To reduce teacher injuries, the union is urging lawmakers to pass the bill that will allow teachers to decide on their own whether or not to break up student fights. Under the proposal, if the teacher does not feel comfortable stepping into a fray between students, he or she will not face any discipline from their employer.
"Teachers are like piñatas sometimes," said Christopher Hankins, an attorney for the Connecticut Education Association, which represents 157 school districts.
Hankins said the proposed legislation would keep teachers safer and protected from discipline. At the same time, the union says lawsuits like Caprio’s would be reduced.
Earlier this month the proposal was approved and voted out of the General Assembly’s Children Committee. Whether the full House and Senate decide to vote on it later this session remains to be seen.
"Some students are quite large," said Hankins. "If a teacher has a choice of intervening and getting hurt or not and they can report this instead of trying to break this up and some sort of response team can come down, the teacher’s not going to get hurt. It makes a lot of sense."
Caprio sued the New Haven Board of Education for lost pay and emotional distress. His case eventually settled. Lawsuits like his have popped up elsewhere.
A teacher in Lake Worth, Fla. who suffered a miscarriage after breaking up a fight sued the school district there. And last year, in Queens, N.Y., a 220-pound gym teacher sued the city because of a broken ankle he sustained at the hands of a 4-foot-2, 50-pound 6-year-old when trying to calm a wild tantrum.
Caprio’s lawyer, Patricia Cofrancesco, of East Haven, supports the latest proposal.
"Given the climate in many urban schools nowadays," Confrancesco said, "I can think of no group of employees besides police officers and fireman more deserving" of the protection.
Cofrancesco said Caprio got a partial recovery for his injuries from workers’ compensation. So she sued the Board of Education to get the rest. She said the district ultimately paid the difference in a settlement.
Cofrancesco said state statute does allow an exception in these situations to sue a school district if workers’ compensation only covers part of the damages. The injured teacher can then sue for the difference. Typically workers’ compensation prevents workers from suing their employer when injured on the job.
Hankins said the districts usually just settle the claims without litigation.
"A lot of times the school doesn’t want to fight about the incremental difference,’ Hankins said. "It’s not that much difference."
Despite the obvious support from teachers for the measure, opponents say it is not necessary. Some worry about the safety of students if there are fights and teachers do not intervene.
While Hankins said schools should have response teams trained in breaking up fights, others believe it is unrealistic for teachers to wait for responders to arrive and intervene.
"This proposal could increase the difficulty for districts serving at-risk students of maintaining a safe school in the event of an emergency situation where there is imminent danger of injury to students and others," said Charlene Russell-Tucker, chief operating officer for the state Department of Education. "It could also create challenges for districts by requiring the hiring and/or assigning of only certified and non-certified staff who agree in advance and possibly only by contract, to be appropriately trained in the use of restraint."
Thomas B. Mooney, co-chair of Shipman & Goodwin’s School Law Practice Group and who represents many school districts statewide in various matters, also questioned the need for any legislation allowing teachers to choose not to intervene when students get into physical altercations.
Mooney described the situation as one of professional judgment on the part of the teachers. Mooney acknowledged that if two large high school students were fighting he wouldn’t want to get in the middle of the tussle either.
"But what if two kindergarteners are rolling around and a teacher stands back and says ‘I’m not getting my pants dirty,’" Mooney said. "Isn’t that just an invitation for irresponsibility? I’m not saying teachers should always intervene. Sometimes it’s appropriate, sometimes it’s risky."
Mooney explained that teachers are indemnified from lawsuits if acting in the scope of their jobs, so if they weren’t to intervene, they couldn’t get sued by an angry parent anyway.
Further, he said if a teacher is injured breaking up a melee and cannot work, all of their medical bills get paid and the time off does not count against their sick leave time.
Mooney further noted a court case from many years ago that shot down a similar initiative because it went against public policy. That provision in binding arbitration would’ve prevented teachers in Clinton from intervening in student fights.
"I really don’t see any need whatsoever for additional legislation on this topic," said Mooney.
Hankins disagrees. He pointed out that teachers sometimes end up in a state Department of Children and Families investigation because a student will claim excessive force or inappropriate touching by the teacher when they do break up a fight.
Hankins said he’s had to sit in on meetings with DCF in 550 cases over the past decade where he was representing the teacher. He said students commonly do this now to deflect blame off of themselves for the altercation. Then the teacher needlessly has a "stigma" attached to their reputation "merely because this teacher has acted to prevent harm" to the students.
"It’s tough being a teacher," said Hankins. "It really is these days."•