Bill would let instructors employ 'reasonable' force

Last modified: 5/6/2011 12:00:00 AM
Retired Nashua teacher Robert Sherman told lawmakers yesterday of a time when he was asked to deal with a student who'd run into the men's room to hide from a female teacher who caught him smoking.

'I gave the student clear orders not to move until an administrator came - and he charged (at) me,' Sherman said.

Sherman and a second teacher restrained the young man, but Sherman was asked later to explain a red mark on the student's arm from the encounter.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Sherman and others in support of a bill that would give school officials immunity if they acted 'in good faith' in using 'reasonable' force to maintain discipline. The bill would change the law, which allows for 'necessary' force, to 'reasonable' force when a student creates a disturbance or refuses to leave, or when force is needed to maintain order.

The committee is expected to vote later on the proposal.

Lead sponsor, Rep. Dan McGuire, a Republican from Epsom, said a stronger law is needed to support school officials who otherwise 'might have the threat of a lawsuit hanging over their heads.'

Rep. Ken Gidge, a Democrat from Nashua and also a sponsor, said classrooms are more dangerous for teachers than they used to be. He said teachers want the bill to become law.

Gidge told the story of a substitute teacher who was hit in the head with a hole punch after asking a student to hand over his ear phones. He spoke of students who went to administrators to unfairly accuse teachers of violence.

'It is needed. The students can't run the schools. The teachers need to run the schools,' he said.

But advocates for disabled students said the change was unnecessary. They said teachers and administrators already can use force to protect themselves or others in a dangerous situation.

'If someone is getting hurt, that's a time to restrain. I agree with you on that,' said John Richards, executive director of the Governor's Commission on Disability.

But he said the bill may encourage teachers to use force in inappropriate situations. 'If a kid is yelling in class, is that a reason to backhand a kid?' he asked.

Michael Skibbie, a lawyer with the Disability Rights Center, said the existing law is sufficient. He said the difference between 'necessary' and 'reasonable' force isn't a meaningful distinction in a situation where force is appropriate.

'The ability to control the situation and protect yourself is intact under current law,' he said. 'I think there's a risk that you're inviting a greater use of force' with the proposed change.

Patricia Victorin, the mother of a child with disabilities, said her son's limitations are not obvious. He might wring his hands, rock or try to hide in the classroom but he's never been aggressive.

This bill 'would provide blanket immunity for any school employee to use physical force against any child for virtually any reason,' she said.

After the hearing, Sherman said he was not prosecuted or punished for his handling of the student in the men's room.

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