Parent Sues School over Student's Poor Grade

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The parents of a high school student in West Virginia sue a teacher and the school board because their daughter got an 'F' on her biology project. Gina Barreca, professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, talks about the case.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, fed up after years covering problems that did not seem to have any apparent solutions, newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts started an experiment this year. No more just talking about what's wrong, he wants to know what works, and he wants you to help. Leonard Pitts joins us, and your ideas on what works. Plus, we visit with the Political Junkie. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

In a few minutes we'll read from your letters, but first the straight-A student, the teacher and the lawsuit.

Most of us have done our share of science projects and I'm sure received the occasional bad grade. In the case of a high school student in West Virginia, when she got an F on her biology project, her parents sued. The lawsuit against the teacher and the school district argues that the bad grade was unfair. That the student, who's not named in the suit, was on a school-approved trip for the student council and turned in the project one day late.

They also claimed that the F may hurt their daughter's grade point average and in turn her chances of getting into a good college. They are asking for an injunction, punitive damages and damages for emotional stress, loss of enjoyment of life and loss of scholarship potential.

Well, if you're a teacher or a principal, are you worried about lawsuits like this? If you are a concerned parent, what are your thoughts? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

Gina Barreca is a professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of "Babes in Boyland: A Personal History of Co-Education in the Ivy League." She also writes about current issues and education. She joins us from her office at the University of Connecticut. Gina, nice to have you on the program today.

Professor GINA BARRECA (Literature and Feminist Theory, University of Connecticut): I'm delighted to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And what do you make of this case?

Prof. BARRECA: Well, I think that I'm afraid that what will happen is that parents will consider teachers simply their governesses, their own personal Mary Poppins, as one of the my graduates has said, as their court tutors, where they are just there; the teachers are not professionals per se, that they are at the behest of the parents. That the parents get to tell the teachers what to do and how to deal with students. And that seems to me be like a really bad idea for everybody involved.

CONAN: That school is sort of like, well, in a sense, a consumer organization.

Prof. BARRECA: Right. Exactly. And so that a parents get to come up and say, not that you're an incompetent teacher but that you have caused my child emotional harm - I mean this kid had a 4.5. Now a 4.5, I presume, is like off the charts because it usually a 4.0.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BARRECA: So this kid is, like, already way too accomplished. You know what I mean? This is somebody who probably has far too much self-esteem, dare I say. And I think that's one of the problems with what's happening with kids is - and it's - I've been teaching for 20 years at all different levels and so I feel quite informed in my response, and having been in school 118 years myself. So I, you know, I've been in there in both capacities. But there's a difference between self-esteem and self-respect.

And what this kid needs to learn is a sense of self-respect. And self-respect comes from saying you know what, this may not be fair, life is unfair and I'm going to go on and make sure that, you know, when I am surgeon general of the United States that I make sure that kids know before they go on a trip to hand in a project before instead of hand in the project later. That's going to be my first - when L.H. or J.H. goes on and does this, she can then get in and tell all the students of America to get their projects in early. This is a discrepancy, isn't there, in the story?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BARRECA: As we read it because the parents or the lawyers for the parents are saying that she's being punished by the teacher quote/unquote, "punished by the teacher" for submitting her report on falling leaves. And again, the whole - I think it's very funny that the story is about falling leaves and the judge's name is Bloom. Somehow we have to negotiate that, but there may just be too much stuff about, you know, flora in West Virginia that really just (unintelligible) the problem.

CONAN: Well, let me quote what her lawyer had to say. "She's not really protesting a bad grade. What she's protesting is the refusal to follow the rule in this particular county, that if you're absent from school with permission, then you're given the days your absent to make up or complete the work you've done and hand it in a little late."

Prof. BARRECA: Okay, but you also have here the teacher saying or, I believe, it's the teacher actually being quoted saying that…

CONAN: I think it's the lawyer for the board of education.

Prof. BARRECA: Right, right, right, was saying that she had plenty of information that any late submission will not be accepted.

CONAN: And part of going to school, the lawyer says, part of going to school is learning there are rules, learning there are deadlines. Unfortunately, this is a pretty good student, but sometimes you just have to learn from your mistakes. And you're suggesting that she just suck it up.

Prof. BARRECA: Well, I mean, that really is part - part of what students need to learn to do is to get a B, to get a C, to get, you know, an F on something, to learn that look, she had - if she had all of this time to hand this in, if she knew that this was going on, that she was very - she sounds like she's an enormously prepared young woman. I think that she should have handed it in early. That's what one does. Anybody in school knows that.

This still sounds to me, first of all, like somebody whose life is not going to be ruined unless her parents insist on making this a traumatic event. It seems to me that the parents are traumatizing kids in this case.

CONAN: The story, and it comes to us from the Associate Press, says the West Virginia Education Association says they're watching this case closely because it could set a precedent.

Prof. BARRECA: Right.

CONAN: Do they have a - are they correct to be worried about this?

Prof. BARRECA: Of course, because what's going to happen? I mean, is it just the parents who, first of all, are sophisticated enough or whatever - upper-class enough to be able to go to a lawyer when, you know, their toothbrush breaks and, you know, they don't have recourse to actually dealing with the toothbrush manufacturer, so they're going to sue it.

There are other people whose kids go to school, get a B, and the parents don't think of suing. This kind of thing just exacerbates the difference between the kids from the have families and the have-not families. This - it makes the teacher feel - I also think - I'm going to go into a whole gender thingy here.

I bet, you know, my five bucks is on the fact if this had been some Mr. Chips as opposed to Ms. Chips who was in front of the room, the parents would've had a harder time thinking that she should've been cut some slack, that female teachers of all stripes - including professors - are supposed to be all warm and nurturing and fuzzy. And if somebody misses a deadline, you're supposed to go, sweetie, I know you were really busy, and it's okay, as opposed to some guy standing up there in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches who says you knew the deadline. You knew, you know, what was going on. And how come you didn't meet it? Too bad.

CONAN: Well, I'll immediately start calling you Professor Barreca again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BARRECA: By all means, don't do that. Don't do that. But it really is. There is something unnerving about the idea that the parents see the teacher as someone who - that the student doesn't have a contract with individually. This is something between the student and the teacher. This is not about the parents.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. If you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. And with us is Barb. Barb's calling us from Walkerton - which state is that in?

BARB (Caller): It's in Indiana, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BARB: I cannot - at first I thought this was a joke. I work with people who are like this, but have never experienced the consequence before. And I think the girl's parents need medication or something. I mean, at first I thought you were joking, but it's like - this is just - it's like she needs to experience this consequence and to get on with life. The parents are living vicariously through this child, and I agree with your teacher.

I mean, this is not a life-or-death issue. It's like collect your leaves, paste them on the paper and get on with life, you know. This is just - I can't believe I'm kind of hearing this, and I can't believe this made it past summary judgment. I can't believe there is a judge in this country that would take this case.

CONAN: Well, there's going to be a hearing toward the end of the month to see whether the case continues or not. But I wanted to ask you, are you the parent of a schoolchild?

BARB: I'm a parent of a middle-schooler and a third-grader, and we've always parented by Newton's Third Law. I've never had to lay a hand on them. It's like these are your responsibilities. If you don't get it done, these are your consequences. And that is life, you know.

CONAN: So even if it cost her the title of valedictorian, even if it conceivably cost her entry into Harvard, hey, no big deal.

BARB: There's other colleges, sir.

Prof. BARRECA: And you don't get into Harvard by having a perfect average.

BARB: No.

Prof. BARRECA: You get in by actually being, you know - any school - you don't get into the University of Connecticut by having a perfect average. You get into school because, actually, you are a talented student, and talent comes in a lot of different forms.

BARB: And those colleges don't necessarily get you the best jobs, you know.

Prof. BARRECA: They make you happy.

BARB: I've never heard anything like this in my life. This is just gone - this is litigation gone too far.

CONAN: Barb, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

BARB: Oh thank you, I enjoy your show, Neal.

CONAN: Thank you. Let's see if we can now talk with Thomas, and Thomas is with us from Minneapolis.

THOMAS (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

THOMAS: I would disagree with the person that you have on the air. I think that the schools should be held liable for this type of situation, especially when allowances have been made when the person is out of town, you know, on a school function. They should be allowed to turn their report in one day late. I think that just like the critiques that have been made about No Child Left Behind, schools just don't want to be responsible or liable to their students for anything.

Prof. BARRECA: Oh, I think that this is - if I can interrupt here.

THOMAS: Oh sure, absolutely.

Prof. BARRECA: I think that this is really much more like in "The Wizard of Oz." You remember, "The Wizard of Oz," when the scarecrow doesn't have a brain. And at the end, the wizard says I can't give you a brain, but I can give you a diploma. And, you know, this is what this is about. This is saying you can do whatever you want, but if you coerce or bribe or basically blackmail me - if every teacher is going to feel the need to give a child an A because otherwise she can be hauled into court…

THOMAS: But the schools have been doing that for years and years, I mean…

Prof. BARRECA: So that means that it has to go on?

THOMAS: …educator previously, the schools have been giving diplomas out like candy, bubble gum, you know.

Prof. BARRECA: So the idea's that that has to then continue?

THOMAS: No, no. But what I'm saying is when somebody is really an accelerated student, somebody is a high achiever and allowances have been made for this type of situation, they should honor that. And they should respect that.

CONAN: Even if…

THOMAS: I don't agree that just because somebody gets an F that's going to make them a better person.

Prof. BARRECA: Oh, I don't think that it necessarily - no, I don't think that it - you know, of the building-character school, nor more than getting, you know, hit with a ruler by a nun will make you a better person. But the idea is that this is a kid who does need to understand that if she is told from the beginning of the class there are no exceptions to this, then she is not the exception.

THOMAS: However, there are allowances within the same school that say that if you're gone on a - I mean, you already established that, that if they were participating in a school function, that they would be honored and that date would be changed or adjusted.

Prof. BARRECA: Presumably, if that - with that, where it says that it, you know, that that has been happening for other things, there's something -there's a lack of information here, for one thing, because school-approved sounds very different from, you know, that this is some, you know, bussing thing that they take the kids and do whatever - I mean, that this is something that she was given permission for. But where's the communication in this?

I mean, where is the kid talking to the teacher and saying look, I'm going to be out of town, so doesn't that mean I get to hand this in on Tuesday? And the teacher either says yes or no.

CONAN: Yeah.

THOMAS: There is also the flexibility, and you know what? When I pictured this scenario, not knowing that it was a female teacher, I automatically assumed that it was a man, because generally, the male teachers have been much more strict in adhering to these type of policies in my experience going through college and graduate school. That had always been my experience.

CONAN: Tom…

THOMAS: And so I didn't automatically assume that it was a female, and to interject gender in that I think would be inappropriate.

Prof. BARRECA: Well, but I mean, the fact that you already interjected gender into by saying that you assumed it was a male teacher because they're usually harder. That's introducing gender.

CONAN: Thomas, arguing with professors, it's a losing proposition, believe me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, though. We thank you for your time. And we also want to thank Gina Barreca. We appreciate your time today.

Prof. BARRECA: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Gina Barreca, a professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, also the author of the book "Babes in Boyland: A Personal History of Co-education in the Ivy League." And she joined us today from her office at the University of Connecticut. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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