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Republicans back taking away financial penalties for parents who sue teachers and lose

By: - January 19, 2023 3:54 pm

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Parents who decide to sue teachers for lessons they perceive as violating their parental rights wouldn’t have to pay up if their lawsuit fails under a Republican-backed proposal that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. 

Senate Bill 1005 prohibits a judge from requiring parents to pay any attorneys fees or damages after losing a lawsuit against a school or teacher. The proposal builds on a law passed by the Republican majority last year allowing parents to sue if they think their fundamental rights were “usurped”. Arizona has a parent’s bill of rights, which includes the right to “direct the upbringing, education, health care and mental health” of their children. 

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The list of rights, which was added to state law in 2010, has been mobilized by Republican legislators in recent years to justify laws attacking everything from masking policies to lesson plans on social issues. 

Sen. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican, said doing away with legal penalties enables parents to fight for their rights. Otherwise, they might be afraid to make their voices heard for fear that they would face financial penalties if they lose in court.

“The school has unlimited resources and a parent may have no resources,” he told senators Thursday. “There’s quite a chilling effect of knowing that, when you go up against a barrage of well-funded lawyers and you can’t prevail, you might also take a really big monetary hit.”

But Democratic Sen. Mitzi Epstein wasn’t convinced. Penalties, she said, exist to dissuade frivolous lawsuits that waste time and money — resources that schools have in short supply. Epstein noted that, in her time as a legislator and during her tenure as a member of the Kyrene school governing board, she’s never heard of any district’s financial ability to hire highly paid lawyers. 

“In most lawsuits…the loser pays,” Epstein said. “That does sort of give us a little balance, in terms of: before you bring a lawsuit, (you) make sure that it is well-grounded.”

State law requires that a judge order reasonable attorneys fees and expenses from a losing party if the lawsuit was found to be without a “substantial justification” or was brought “solely or primarily” as a form of harassment. It’s up to the judge whether to also apply a $5,000 penalty. Kavanagh’s bill would eliminate all of that for parental lawsuits, except in cases where the lawsuit was too egregious or ungrounded to be considered a valid argument.

“Only in the outrageously frivolous…cases would a parent have to pay,” he said.

Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, a former school teacher, questioned whether the bill’s exception would still leave a lot of room for unfounded lawsuits to be filed, and worried that the threat of a lawsuit without repercussions could negatively impact how teachers approach lesson plans. 

“I don’t think school districts should have to pay the cost of parents who are potentially (filing lawsuits) partially for harassment versus ‘solely,’” she said. “I have an issue with the chilling effect this could have on schools and teachers.” 

Bridget Sharpe echoed this fear to the Arizona Mirror. Sharpe, who is the executive director of the Arizona chapter of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, traveled to the state Capitol to register her opposition to the bill. But because she signed up to speak only “if necessary” — an option that’s left up to the discretion of the committee chair — she wasn’t given a chance to talk directly to senators during the hearing. 

“It’s not required that teachers talk about our community…but this really deters teachers from even mentioning LGBTQ issues,” she told the Mirror. “The concern is there’s more barriers to teachers feeling like they can openly talk about things like this.” 

Sharpe noted that the continued and highly publicized efforts from lawmakers to legislate LGBTQ topics and people out of the classroom dissuades teachers from including diverse communities in their lessons. Last year, a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills made their way through state legislatures across the country — and this year is on track to outpace that, with more than 100 anti-LGBTQ bills being considered already. Adding the threat of lawsuits from disgruntled parents onto the pile of concerns for the state’s already overworked teachers, Sharpe said, isn’t helpful. 

“In a lot of teacher’s minds, they’ve got 30 students in their class, they’re not getting paid enough, they don’t have the resources, and now they have to worry about this on top of that,” she said. 

The proposal was approved 4-3 along party lines, but is unlikely to be signed by Gov. Katie Hobbs unless it earns bipartisan support — something that appears out of reach if the unanimous votes in opposition from the panel’s Democrats are any indication. Hobbs has vowed to sign only bills that garner support from both parties.

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Gloria Rebecca Gomez
Gloria Rebecca Gomez

Gloria Gomez joined the Arizona Mirror in August 2022. Prior to that, she wrote for the Mirror as the UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow. She has written for the Arizona Daily Star, the Arizona Republic and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She graduated in 2022 with bachelor's degrees in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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