Reading, Writing and the Risks of Slipping Through the Cracks
By Jonathan Berr, a New Jersey-based freelance writer.
School districts around the country find themselves in a quandary. They've had more laws imposed upon them, yet have fewer state and federal dollars to help them follow those very same laws.
Will the pressure open up risk fissures?
"They have more state laws requiring them to do more things," said Cindy LaMantia, an executive vice president with brokerage Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in Itasca, Ill.
Given the tight budgets districts operate under and the cutbacks and layoffs that have hit districts, carriers are concerned with "things slipping through the cracks," she said.
As many as 50 million school students started another year this month and risk managers in districts across the country are preparing for challenges that were unimaginable a generation ago.
Incidents of violence, conduct unbecoming of teachers, and the consequences of students' own foolish choices, such as sexting, or the act of texting sexually explicit messages, regularly make the headlines.
Add to that an emphasis on combating bullying and integrating students with special needs into the mainstream, and the demands on school districts seem to be endless.
New Jersey recently enacted some of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the country in response to the well-publicized death last year of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who committed suicide after having been filmed by his roomate during a homosexual encounter.
The law requires that districts "establish bullying prevention programs or approaches. ..."
Some critics argue that the law goes too far, but New Jersey school districts need to live with it, and so will districts across the country that choose to follow the Garden State's approach.
The law presents a challenge to the Cherry Hill School District in southern New Jersey, which has seen a decline in reports of school violence but a dramatic spike in reports of bullying.
The district reported 24 incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) in 2009-2010, up from five in the previous year. "While some of the increase can be attributed to better reporting, the district strives to combat the upsurge in bullying incidents," the district said in a statement to Risk & Insurance®.
Cherry Hill's approach to fighting bullying includes in-service training, classroom presentations from the Cherry Hill Police Department and character education programs, a district spokeswoman said. All of that costs money, of course, and it's up to the district to find it.
Of course, there are plenty of other cracks to keep risk managers at school districts busy.
Mary Jane Fick, the coordinator for risk management at the Fairfax County Public School District in Virginia, said her team had to inspect district buildings for damage from the recent earthquake that rocked the Northeast.
"Teams of loss adjusters and engineers are working together to put together a claim for the cosmetic damage which was discovered," she said in an email.
Other risks come from social media ranging from teachers who write nasty comments about students on personal blogs, to students sending sexually explicit messages and engaging in cyberbullying.
Experts caution that salacious stories surrounding teachers and students are rare. Still, districts find themselves on the defensive as lawyers prepare to square off over the potential liabilities faced by district managers and school boards.
Though the dangers of the cyber world are real, solutions can be simple.
Gordon Padera, executive vice president with Gallagher Bassett Services Inc., recommends that district employees only communicate with students using their work email addresses.
Teachers who want to be on Facebook should establish a fan page that would enable children to post their homework assignments, but not permit direct communication.
September 12, 2011
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