Lawsuit Seeks to Protect Teachers from Prop. 227’s “Sword of Damocles”

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 23, 1998

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A lawsuit is being filed today in federal court in California to overturn a Draconian provision in Proposition 227 that endangers teachers and school administrators and forces them to choose between their livelihood and their students.

“Proposition 227 hangs over teachers’ heads like the Sword of Damocles,” said Carole Shields, president of People For the American Way Foundation, which is co-counsel in the lawsuit. “We should all be horrified that teachers might be forced to lose their jobs, sacrifice their families and even have their homes taken away.”

At issue is one section of Proposition 227, which earlier this year virtually abolished bilingual education for California’s 1.4 million schoolchildren whose parents come from foreign countries and who have limited or no proficiency in English. That one section states that teachers, administrators and school board members who run afoul of Proposition 227 “may be held personally liable for fees and actual damages” by any parent in a civil lawsuit.

The author of Proposition 227, Ron Unz, has publicly confirmed that teachers and administrators could face financial ruin under the statute. “There is a real possibility that some administrators and teachers will lose their homes and be forced into bankruptcy over this,” Unz told the Los Angeles Times.

The challenge facing educators is that parts of Proposition 227 are not clearly defined. For example, the law states that classroom instruction must be “overwhelmingly in English,” but does not explain what “overwhelmingly” means. Indeed, some school districts have defined “overwhelmingly” as 60 percent, while other districts have defined it as 100 percent.

“The ultimate victims of this provision will be children,” Shields said. “Teachers must be able to focus on the needs of schoolchildren without fear of a lawsuit.”

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which is being filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, include the California Teachers Association, the Association of California School Administrators, the Association of Mexican American Educators, the California Association for Asian-Pacific Bilingual Education, the National Association of Bilingual Educators, Irella Perez, Norma Steiner, and Kristen Worthman, all of whom are teachers, and Emily Palacio, a school administrator.

The lawsuit alleges that Proposition 227 threatens teachers’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and impermissibly imposes the threat of significant personal harm based on excessively vague standards. It states that the individual plaintiffs might occasionally use Spanish in the classroom out of the necessity to gain the trust and confidence of their students, which in turn is a critical component of teaching them. The lawsuit further states that the teachers fear being subject to personal liability or other harm if they use Spanish or any non-English language in the classroom. The plaintiffs’ “right to communicate with (their) students is chilled by Section 320 and (they are) unable to conform (their) conduct to the requirements of Proposition 227 because it is impossible to ascertain what is required or prohibited by that statute,” the lawsuit states.

Tim O’Brien, Deputy Director of PFAWF’s California office, said that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are not attempting to argue the merits of Proposition 227. Rather, he said, they need clear standards on how the statute should be implemented, and they need to know that if they make a mistake, they will not face potentially devastating lawsuits.

“If parents are unhappy with a teacher’s performance in the classroom, there is a remedy,” O’Brien said. “That remedy involves speaking with the school principal or, if necessary, seeking action from the elected school board. Allowing an individual parent to target school teachers for legal action invites chaos and does nothing to make our schools stronger.”