Teachers' Rights: Public Versus Private Schools

The most significant legal right that public-school teachers have historically enjoyed, and private-school teachers have not, is sovereign immunity, whereby governmental entities and their employees have traditionally received immunity from lawsuits arising from torts, or civil wrongs, committed by government employees.

Of course, in virtually every state the ancient doctrine of sovereign immunity has been amended by statutes expressly waiving immunity. In Virginia, for example, the Virginia Torts Claims Act declares that Virginia “shall be liable for claims of money … on account of … personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee. …”

However, this statute only applies to the Virginia state government — not to its agents, such as public schools and public-school teachers. If a Virginia parent wants to sue a school district, the parent will have to sue the Virginia state government itself, utilizing a cause of action called vicarious liability, where the state becomes responsible for the negligence of its agencies.

Even if a parent can prove that a district negligently caused injury to her child, state statutes generally cap recoverable damages at approximately $100,000–$250,000. To circumvent such arbitrary caps and recover meaningful damages, the parent would probably have to prove gross negligence — a willful and wanton neglect of a legal responsibility.

Or consider the state of Illinois. There, the Tort Immunity Act says that although the state government may be sued, “public employees” such as public-school teachers cannot be sued for injuries caused by failure to properly supervise school activities.

But such immunity does not apply to private schools or their teachers. In the 1979 case of Cooney v. Society of Mt. Carmel,the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that merely because private schools “serve the public good” does not “transform such schools from private into public entities.” This ruling was referenced in another Illinois Supreme Court case, 1998's Henrich v. Liberty–ville High School,where the court again declined to attach the protections of the Tort Immunity Act to private schools.

In fact, in the 2002 Illinois Supreme Court case of Brugger v. Joseph Academy,the court ruled that in a situation where a student was injured after a private-school teacher required her to play dodge-ball — though she had a doctor's note of excuse — the Tort Immunity Act didn't protect the school from being sued.

Therefore, if you want to teach in a private school, consider carefully the difference in the degree of legal protection that your state affords public-school teachers and private-school teachers.

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