Learn The Hard Way

DIDN'T MAKE THE CHEERLEADING SQUAD? MIGHT AS WELL TAKE YOUR ELEMENTARY-SCHOOL PRINCIPAL TO COURT.

BY PAT WINGERT

Joe Pizza doesn't want to sound negative. An educator for 30 years--18 as principal of Silver Bay Elementary School in Toms River, N.J.--Pizza (pronounced Pee-sah) loves his job. But if he starts talking about what litigation is doing to American education, he can't hide his frustration. "Schools should be about what's best for the child, and secondly, we should be concerned about the law," he says. "But the law does tie our hands."

When he first started teaching, lawsuits didn't loom large in Pizza's imagination. Now, he says, schools get sued over anything, over nothing. Take the case of the group of fifth graders who were shooting hoops on the school playground one morning. The kids were breaking the rules--students aren't allowed to play on school property without adult supervisors. But when one of the boys broke his arm, his mother, who had no insurance, sued the school and the parents of all her son's playmates. She argued that her son deserved compensation because his injury meant he wouldn't be able to play baseball that summer. "The kid was not Mickey Mantle," Pizza said. Nonetheless, one of the parents' insurance companies ended up paying some damages.

Then there was the case of the fifth grader who wasn't picked for the cheerleading squad. The mom said the decision was personal--one of the judges didn't like her daughter--and took her complaint all the way up the administrative ladder, even though "this was only supposed to be a little extracurricular thing." But to keep the case from going legal, Pizza was encouraged by his superiors to hold a second round of tryouts, with different judges. After that, Pizza initiated a new requirement: any student who wants to try out for anything now must bring in a permission slip signed by a parent that specifies "that they will accept the decision of the judges." What once was obvious now requires a written waiver.

Too often, Pizza says, his job requires him to choose between what's legal and what's common sense. One example: whether to allow his older students to use toy weapons for the big sword-fight scene in the school's production of "Peter Pan." Many principals would have said no--technically, it could be construed as a violation of zero-tolerance laws forbidding any weapons, toy or real, in American schools. "But these fights were choreographed," Pizza said. "And we had lots of supervision." Similarly, Pizza decided to take an unorthodox approach when a paperwork snafu meant the school's nurse didn't have proper authorization to give a new student his routine dose of behavior-modifying medication. Rather than take a chance that the child would act out and get sent home, Pizza decided instead to call the mom, with a witness listening in, and get oral permission. "I knew I was sticking my neck out by doing that," he said. "Some people would say that was stupid, but I thought it was more important for him to have a successful day at school." No one's called to sue. So far.