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Never far from school halls: the lawsuit

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For some students and their parents, a good lawyer can be as important as good grades.

Consider the Alabama father who sued his daughter's principal in May after she failed to make the cheerleading team. Or the Oklahoma mother who dragged her children's high school into court after teachers required students to grade one another's assignments and then read the results aloud.

Stories like those have teachers and principals around the country wondering if their decisions made in classrooms may be challenged in courtrooms.

Schools have always been fertile ground for lawsuits over religious observance and free speech. But educators say the volume of suits is on the rise, forcing them to siphon time and money away from learning.

One-quarter of elementary school principals surveyed by the American Tort Reform Association in 1999 had faced a lawsuit or out-of-court settlement in the previous two years. Respondents said legal actions put a stop to such things as dodgeball, which could cause injury, or hugging students when they needed support.

Not all observers agree that the situation is dire. Lehigh University school-law professor Perry Zirkel says the number of lawsuits isn't necessarily increasing, with the exception of suits involving disabled students.

Policies invite lawsuits

A number of factors may be linked to the frequency of suits. For one, aggressive zero-tolerance discipline policies that punish or expel students after only one offense invite lawsuits, say some observers. With the stakes so high, parents are more likely to bring lawyers along to student appeal hearings, says Julie Vogt of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

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