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Staying Out of Legal Hot Water: School Administrators Get Advice - KOAM TV 7

Staying Out of Legal Hot Water: School Administrators Get Advice

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WEBB CITY, MISSOURI -

Area school administrators get advice on how to stay out of legal hot water. A leadership summit sponsored by the Southwest Education Center for Excellence  brought in attorneys to give school leaders lessons on the law and avoiding lawsuits.

"What constitutes them endorsing religion in school environment?” asks Emily Omohondro of the Missouri Ed Council. One of several lawyers who advised administrators on educating their staffs about what can prompt a lawsuit. Like religion in schools.

She suggested they know, "What activities students can engage in that is protected."

Joplin school district is facing  a lawsuit from the American Humanists Association over a field trip to a religious based facility.

While Carl Junction was sued by parents alleging that bullying on a bus led to their student’s suicide. The case was dismissed but a settlement paid.

Superintendent Phil Cook said, “We want to know we're doing things right, that we're treating people with respect and dignity. That we're not discriminating. That we’re protecting kids. That’s the most important thing. We strive for that every single day. When there’s an opportunity or time when we fall short, we want to make it right. Sometimes school districts get called on that. We want to make it right, learn from our experiences and move forward and just make sure we’re taking care of kids and staff members in the appropriate way.”

Administrators say the annual legal update is important because lawsuits from personnel or parents can be devastating to districts financially.

Dr. Kerry Sachetta with the Joplin School district said, "To make sure we have knowledge of certain things, make corrective actions if we need to the way we handle things, and try to  avoid things. Try to make the work place better for everybody."

Discrimination is a hot issue and legal advisers and superintendents say the Missouri Human Rights Act is making things challenging  for districts as it is stricter than even federal law.

Emily Omohondro said, "Claims under the Missouri Human Rights Act, employees and student on student issues that are alleging discrimination, that is the number one kind of lawsuit that schools are facing."

 Cook said the act is a different kind of animal, "If we have an employee terminated for whatever reason or simply separated for whatever reason that might be,  if there’s any way they can tie just a piece of  that to any kind of protected classes, than they can get damages."

Speakers pointed to jury awards topping eight hundred thousand dollars making districts targets for more lawsuits.

But some believe there’s something to learn from lawsuits. Sachetta said, “A lot of times behaviors have changed in how we deal with people and we put procedures in place because of lawsuits."

    

 How expensive are legal fees for districts?. Joplin budgeted sixty-five thousand dollars this year.

   But in just one case that  the district filed against an electrical contractor that worked on rebuilding the high school and that company's  countersuit against the district, Joplin schools has paid six hundred and fifty thousand dollars in legal fees.

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