Teachers reminded of legal issues

By BRENDA PEDRAZA-VIDAMOUR brenda@newnan.com Dr. Luke Cornelius, an assistant professor at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, lectured new Coweta County teachers about what to keep in mind regarding some of education's legal issues this year. The attorney forewarned that some teachers typically leave his two-hour presentation on "school law" feeling more paranoid than before because of the inordinate number of unpleasant legal issues that teachers face year after year.
Cornelius reassured the educators that if they continue to follow three rules, they'll be OK. The rules are to "always act in good faith" and follow school policy, to ask someone in the know when they're in doubt about what to do, and to document everything. His overview of teachers' unique legal issues covered provocative topics such as how "search and seizure" laws apply to students, emerging threats with cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking -- such as aggressive texting, sexual harassment and hazing -- religious and personal expression, school violence and advice for teachers to sanitize their own personal Web pages. Cornelius elicited a few gasps from the group when he cited cases or statistics involving some of these issues. He said the biggest legal problems coming from schools today involve sexual harassment cases, which also include some disturbing hazing practices. "Sexual harassment may be the single biggest problem in Georgia schools today," he said. Since working with West Georgia's department of education, the professor had been tracking those incidents in metro Atlanta and "it is one of the worst. ... There is one incident involving an adult and a student once a week," he said. He warned teachers not to be naive in thinking that sexual harassment is limited to older students. He said an unnamed school district, located north of Coweta and within driving distance, discovered that a long-standing initiation ritual for its middle school band team members on their first away game was for the new female members of the band to perform oral sex on the male members. "So don't kid yourselves of the naiveté or innocence of students," he said. One teacher in the group, who had worked as a Marine Corps ROTC instructor, said he often took students on overnight field trips to Paris Island. From those experiences, he advised his colleagues that if they had to chaperone students involving overnight hotel stays that they should be prepared to stand guard all night. "If you ever have to do that, take a a large roll of masking tape and tape the doors, and the second thing is be prepared to stay up all night walking the halls," he said. Cornelius said another one of his major concerns with schools nowadays involves bullying abuses. He said addressing bullying issues early on is the most effective way to raise a school's achievement. Bullying affects students' attendance and achievement, hence it impacts adequate yearly progress, he said. "Bullying costs 100,000 school days a year," he said. The attorney said bullying is one thing that all schools should take very seriously because it's a "leading cause of school violence" and targeted attacks. "No one wants to be the next Columbine," he said. Among the statistics, Cornelius, a specialist in school law, noted that 77 percent of school shootings are victims of bullying. Cornelius also warned that Coweta's demographics are "almost ideal" for a school shooting. Other legal issues covered involved topics such as a students' privacy and educational rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), attendance, child abuse, copyright and fair use laws and liability issues. Cornelius addressed new teachers Thursday at one of the sessions offered to Coweta County School System's new teachers during their three-day annual induction program.


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