The Maryland Court of Appeals has all but closed the door on educational malpractice suits by ruling that public school systems cannot be sued for improperly educating a child.
Yet the state's highest court, in what it said may be the first decision of its kind, left the door slightly ajar by adding in last week's opinion that individual educators can be sued for intentionally and maliciously acting to injure a child.
The high court ruling, in the suit by a Rockville couple against the Montgomery County school board, makes Maryland the latest of several states to decide that judgments about who is responsible for the quality of a child's education should not be made by judges and juries. No court has yet recognized such a responsibility, according to attorneys familiar with the cases.
Although acknowledging that legitimate grounds for complaint about a student's education may exist, the court said that allowing suits for educational negligence would "in effect position the courts of this state as overseers of both the day-to-day operation of our educational process as well as the formulation of its governing policies.
"This responsibility we are loathe to impose on our courts," the 6-1 majority opinion read. Other administrative channels for hearing complaints exist within the school system, the court concluded.
Judge Rita C. Davidson, in the lone dissenting opinion, argued that teachers, like other professionals who can be sued for negligence, should be held accountable for the quality of services rendered.
"It is common knowledge . . . that the failure of schools to achieve educational objectives has reached massive proportions," Davidson wrote in an opinion stressing that a quality education is the responsibility of the school system. As a result, "not only are many persons deprived of the learning that both materially and spiritually enhances life, but also . . . society as a whole is beset by social and moral problems."
Current complaint procedures in school systems, she said, do not "adequately deal with incompetent teaching or provide adequate relief to an injured student."
In effect, the high court's latest ruling leaves the burdensome question of educational accountability where it has always been: unanswered.
"It is too difficult to prove that one particular teacher who has a student five to six hours a day, 25 weeks a year, is the guiding or substantial influence in educating or not educating a child," said Lawrence A. Poltrock, chief attorney for the American Federation of Teachers, in commenting on the ruling and summing up what has been the traditional argument against education malpractice suits. "A child's community, his family, his neighborhood . . . all this adds to the complexity of educating a child. To identify blame is impossible."
In the case of Hunter versus the Montgomery County Board of Education et al, Joseph and Phyllis Hunter charged that in 1968 their son Ross, now a junior at Westfield State College in Massachusetts, was placed in the second grade in Hungerford Elementary School in Rockville (now Hungerford Park Elementary) after a consolidation, but was forced to repeat first grade material even though he had earlier completed the work satisfactorily.
The Hunters began complaining to teachers and school officials when Ross was in the third grade. But according to Hunter, the lag between what the school curriculum said a student should be studying at grade level and what their son actually was learning continued until Ross Hunter left elementary school.
As a consequence, the Hunters charged, when their son entered junior high school he was unprepared to do the work and required extensive tutoring before being brought up to grade level. Ross Hunter, the original suit read, suffered "internal psychological scars" that continued to hinder his ability to learn.
In addition to these complaints, the Hunters charged that the school system had deliberately and maliciously altered their son's records.
In 1977, after pursuing the school system's complaint procedure, the Hunters filed suit in the county circuit court asking for $600,000 in damages. Both the circuit court and the Special Appeals Court, the state's second highest court, dismissed the suit, ruling that the Hunters could not sue for educational malpractice.
In its ruling last week, the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal by the two lower courts of all charges of negligence and breach of contract.
But in a new development, it ordered the Court of Special Appeals to rehear the charge that some educators acted "intentionally and maliciously . . . to injure (the Hunters') child."
Lawyers for both sides said they expect to begin gathering evidence for the new trial soon. In their original suit, the Hunters named Principal Mabel L. McGirr, who has since died, James F. Miller, a sixth-grade teacher, and William Balant, a teacher. Miller now teaches at Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville, while Balant teaches at Woodfield Elementary in Gaithersburg. The Hunters' lawyer, Browne L. Kooken of Landover, said he didn't know whether Miller and Balant would be named again in the retrial.
"I don't know if I'm pleased with the result or not," said Kooken of the high court decision. "In a matter of comparison, I guess I'm pleased that the Court of Appeals made a distinction between the different types (negligence and intentional malice) of complaints made."
Although the court made the distinction between negligent actions and malicious and intentional ones, it added that the task of proving willful or malicious injury probably would be a "formidable burden" that most cases could not meet.
The Hunters now must identify who was responsible for their son's alleged injuries, and prove that these persons acted intentionally to harm him.
"To say you can file a suit charging a teacher with willful and wanton injury is a far cry from being able to demonstrate proof," said American Federation of Teachers lawyer Poltrock. "In the first place, it's almost impossible to prove who is responsible for a 13-year-old's problem.
"Do you blame it on the first-grade teacher, the third-grade teacher or the fourth-grade teacher? (By adding) the difficulty of proving a standard of intentional and wanton behavior, you have a standard of proof that is almost impossible to meet."
In a move that indicates the Court of Appeals apparently wants to further define what it means by intentional and malicious injury, the court agreed the day following the Hunter ruling to hear another educational malpractice case filed against the Montgomery County school board. In the case of John Doe vs. the Montgomery County Board of Education, parents who were not identified in court papers charged that school officials had wrongly diagnosed their son as mentally retarded and deprived him of his right to equal opportunity in education by keeping him in special education classes for seven years.
School officials were pleased with the ruling in the Hunter case. "It's always nice to come out on the winning side of a lawsuit," said school system spokesperson Ken Muir.
National and local education groups almost uniformly characterized the ruling as a welcome vindication for public education.
"I don't see this decision as opening up any new avenues for litigation," said David Eberly, president of the nearly 6,500-member county chapter of the National Education Association. "On the contrary, I see the decision as eliminating most litigation."