From The “When Ethics Fail, The Law Takes Over” Files: The Dumb Teacher, The Fragile Student, And The Bucket

A toilet at Patrick Henry High....

A toilet at Patrick Henry High….

Yyyyyyup! The American public school system continues to impress. As they used to say, “Get a load of this!

In 2012 Gonja Wolf was an art teacher at Patrick Henry High School in the San Diego Unified School District. She was monitoring a 25-minute study hall. Administrators at the school had told teachers that frequent bathroom breaks for students would undermine the study hall’s purpose, which was uninterrupted study. They also told teachers to use their common sense. Unfortunately, Ms. Wolf had no common sense.

When a young woman in the class, a freshman, asked to go to the restroom, Wolf ordered her to urinate in a bucket in an adjacent supply room rather than use the bathroom during class.  The bucket was there because Wolf, a think-ahead type of person, purchased the bucket, she said, to serve as a toilet in case of a security lockdown, and had even used the bucket for emergency peeing herself. (I should have put this story in the “I Can’t Believe I’m Writing This” file.) She said she misunderstood the school’s instructions about bathroom breaks, but thought it was a good idea. To have students pee in a bucket. She actually said this under oath.

Yes, sadly, Gonja Wolf is an idiot.

Other students heard Wolf order the girl to pee in the bucket, and henceforth the student was mercilessly teased by classmates, who presumably called her Bucket Girl” or “Pail Face,” or something. The incident got a great deal of local media attention, further humiliating her so much that she changed schools twice, attempted suicide and now, four years later (she’s now 19) still  suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She finally earned her high school diploma from a charter school.

Her family sued the Patrick Henry High, which rejected her offer to settle for $25,000. Big mistake. A jury last week awarded her  $1.25 million in damages.

Some further observations on a Kaboom!-worthy story (for some reason my head didn’t explode, perhaps because we just had a ridiculous public school art teacher episode, and my expectations were lowered):

  • I am constantly amazed that teachers this foolish are hired by public schools. Students are at risk of physical and cognitive damage when adult supervisors are so far below the rudimentary level of competence that they think, “Hey I’ve got a great idea! I’ll have students piss in a bucket! I’ll even use the bucket myself!”
  • You will be pleased to know that the art teacher was placed on leave, and did not return to the school. You will not be pleased to know that I cannot certify that she isn’t teaching someplace else, doing god knows what to her students.
  • Needless to say, this was not a very resilient young woman. That is an extreme reaction to a single embarrassing incident in high school. However, the law or torts says that you take your victim as you find her. If she is especially vulnerable to the tort you inflict on her, you are deemed responsible and liable for all the damage directly traceable to the injury.
  • The school got incompetent legal advice when it turned down that $25,000 settlement demand. That was reasonable; I’d call it a bargain.
  • The final damages may be considerably less by the time the case is appealed, but maybe not. The more I think about this case, the more reasonable the verdict seems.

______________________________

Pointer and Sources: ABA Journal

19 Comments

Filed under Character, Childhood and children, Education, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Kaboom!, Professions, Workplace

19 responses to “From The “When Ethics Fail, The Law Takes Over” Files: The Dumb Teacher, The Fragile Student, And The Bucket

  1. Steve-O-in-NJ

    I just left the men’s room here. I’d rather piss myself or use a bucket at my desk than use the bathroom alongside this former co-worker who I loathe.

  2. “I am constantly amazed that teachers this foolish are hired by public schools.”

    I’m… not. I actually came from a family of blessedly liberal union employees, healthcare professionals and teachers… Even my mother, an accountant, who instilled in me a love for numbers eventually retired and took a job teaching (Music, of all things). Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed about the teachers in particular is that they live in a different world than the rest of us… With very few exceptions they went from school (student) to school (university) to school (teacher) with somewhere between very little and no actual life experience and they missed out on something along the way. This… arrested development… in life skills has led to some incredibly stupid ideas around Christmas dinner from them, and I just fail to be surprised anymore.

    “You will be pleased to know that the art teacher was placed on leave, and did not return to the school.”

    You’ll be displeased to know that it took them WEEKS to do that, and after this cools down, she’ll have no trouble finding employment. I mean really… How much more ‘investigation’ has to happen? A kid had to pee, and was given the choice of pissing in a bucket or facing consequences.

    “The final damages may be considerably less by the time the case is appealed, but maybe not. The more I think about this case, the more reasonable the verdict seems.”

    I struggle with these sums… Private suits almost always result in changes, even if the changes aren’t positive, because someone learns something and takes pains not to have it happen again… If the Title IX lawsuits are any indication, public schools don’t learn these lessons…. So the taxpayer eventually shoulders the burden of unchecked incompetence. That said, I don’t begrudge the family a cent.

    • Pennagain

      one thing I’ve noticed about the teachers in particular is that they live in a different world than the rest of us… With very few exceptions they went from school (student) to school (university) to school (teacher) with somewhere between very little and no actual life experience and they missed out on something along the way.
      Funny . . . I’ve been saying the same thing about doctors for years: most go from being over-achievers in science and math (pressured by teachers, family & self) all the way through school, directly to med school, to internships on 36-hour shifts, thence to residencies, at which point the school loan debt kicks in and they have to concentrate on getting into (or worse, starting) a practice … with minimal social skills or understanding of the world they live in. That’s the main reason we don’t have the preventive health care that would drastically reduce the need for repairing and replacing parts on the barn door.

  3. Wayne

    Well the art teacher could have claimed it was performance art or something. All in all, I’m glad that the art teacher got canned.

  4. Chris

    Jesus.

    I don’t find myself questioning the verdict as much as you. While at first I was surprised that the girl was so traumatized by this, it didn’t take long to remember that forcing inmates to urinate in demeaning conditions is a time-tested tool of psychological torture.

    • Eternal Optometrist

      Agree with Chris (I know!). If I’m on the appeals court, I’m upholding that verdict all day long. Also, you have to reward that attorney for taking that case to trial (presuming he doesn’t get his fees some other way) and a third of $1.25 million (I’m making a lot of assumptions here) seems right. A jury trial is not only a huge gamble, but a humongous pain in the ass.

      Also, ethics award to the family’s attorney for his imminently reasonable $25,000 settlement demand. Were all Plaintiffs’ attorneys so reasonable, the world would be a much less litigious place.

    • Excellent point. Also redolent of Abu Ghraib

  5. E2 (nee Elizabeth I)

    If more families sued their school districts for the moronic, uneducated, ill-informed, damaging, and unprofessional behavior of their teachers and the damage done to students, you’d see a lot of public school budgets drop to zero. And good. There is no responsibility on the district level for the teachers they employ, and they bow to the unions which for the most part keep them in place.

    Does New York City still have the several hundred-plus teachers deemed unfit for the classroom but warehoused — at full salary — because they can’t fight the teachers’ unions? I couldn’t believe it when I read about it: they show up every day, read/knit/do crossword puzzles at full pay despite being officially unfit for teaching.

    Between the unions’ protect-at-all-costs attitude, the lassitude of public school districts, the idiocy of teachers, and the fear of the students and their families, this type of lunacy will continue. And I’m absolutely certain that only about 1% of like cases reach the news.

  6. The school deserves to pay a huge amount! In my opinion, $1.25 million is not enough.

    This girls parents should have taught their daughter some self respect.

    My daughter would have told her straight to her face “No Ms Wolf, I won’t do that” and proceeded to walk out of the room to the restroom, when done in the rest room she would have gone straight to the office and reported what Ms Wolf had told her to do. What do you honestly think this idiot Ms Wolf would have done when faced with my daughters words and actions.

    • My son did that kind of thing in the FIFTH GRADE, leading eventually to home schooling. Still, it is a lot to ask of a high school freshman, who is still likely to believe that an adult teacher knows what she is doing.

      • Jack Marshall said, “Still, it is a lot to ask of a high school freshman, who is still likely to believe that an adult teacher knows what she is doing.”

        Isn’t that somewhat of an ethics surrender?

        I’m sorry Jack but I don’t think you will find one High School student anywhere in the United States that would consider peeing in a bucket in a supply room as being the right thing to do unless there were extraordinary circumstances involved, these were in no way extraordinary circumstances and everyone in that room knew that what this teacher told the girl to do was wrong.

        • Oh, I’d take that bet. And it is unethical to hold a child to adult standards.

          • I left something out, let me clarify that statement to better reflect what I was actually thinking.

            I’m sorry Jack but I don’t think you will find one High School student anywhere in the United States that would consider being ordered to pee in a bucket in a supply room as being the right thing to do unless there were extraordinary circumstances involved, these were in no way extraordinary circumstances and everyone in that room knew that what this teacher told the girl to do was wrong.

            There, I’ll stand by that statement.

            • Chris

              Refer to the Milgram experiment, Zoltar. When told to do something by an authority figure, most people will feel immense pressure to do so. The extremity of the order doesn’t seem to reduce this in any way.

              I would call a roomful of adults who let this happen unethical, but a room full of children? No. They were all victims here.

              • Yes, excellent application of Milgram.

              • Chris wrote, “Refer to the Milgram experiment”

                I’m quite aware of the Milgram experiment, interesting comparison.

                Chris said, “I would call a roomful of adults who let this happen unethical, but a room full of children? No. They were all victims here.”

                Personally I agree that the student was a victim, I never contested that and I never said the student was unethical, what I did do was to question whether the statement “Still, it is a lot to ask of a high school freshman, who is still likely to believe that an adult teacher knows what she is doing” was somewhat of an ethics surrender based on this statement in the list of rationalizations “Ethics Surrender, however, warrants particular attention, as it encourages moral cowardice and ethics complacency.”

                By the way Chris; If a college professor did the exact the same demeaning thing to a college student with the same results, I’d say that that student was a victim of abuse too. Abuse is not blind to age. Abuse takes advantage of ignorance and low self esteem. Abuse is abuse.

  7. MD

    To Steve-O: My English teacher taught me well; it should be “whom” I loathe, not “who”. Though I know there are terrible teachers (as with every profession-“bad apples” exist), I would expect everyone has had a least one great teacher.

  8. Captain Obvious

    The verdict is even worse for the school district than you might think at first glance: Because they rejected a settlement offer for less than the eventual award, I’m pretty sure the district’s insurance won’t pay the final settlement (whatever it may be) unless on appeal it gets down to $25,000 or less.

    So that district is going to end up with a massive hole in the budget.

  9. I was questioning the plaintiffs sensitivity also but my wife pointed out how terrible children can be to each other. Particularly where mob rules rule and there is no moral authority granted to those in authority, the teachers and administrators.

    In other words: very a bunch of kids someplace where adults are find to teach them facts and figures but not right from wrong and the we shouldn’t be surprised when they take an event like this and tease the victim cruelly and mercilessly.

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