Judicial decision shows disregard for the day-to-day life of a teacher
BY DIRK KUNZ
On the first day of a class trip to Sweden two years ago, a female teacher from Ingelheim (Rhineland-Palatinate/Germany) had over €1000 stolen out of her wallet, which was in a closed backpack. The money belonged to the students and was intended for the purchase of tickets to a guided tour of the city. Her employer, the ADD (the administrative agency of the state Rhineland-Palatinate), will not reimburse the teacher’s loss. The reasoning: she should have paid with a debit or credit card.
The administrative court said that the German teacher acted with gross negligence. She collected some of the money in a public place, and the ADD claims that the teacher should have taken special measures to secure the money.
That means for the 44.000 teacher in Rhineland-Palatinate that the deck is stacked against them if student money is stolen on class trips. This judicial decision demonstrates just how little regard for the teacher’s reality of life the courts have.
Ms. Berger-Saalfeld (name changed), recently you were on a class trip to Hamburg. One year ago you said you will not participate in these trips anymore!?
Ms. Berger-Saalfeld: Yes, after that last class trip, two years ago, I promised myself not to organize a school trip anymore, because it is so risky. But as a teacher you are pressured into it. In certain classes trips are required as a part of the curriculum. On the other hand, I do myself no favors in refusing to take part in the organization of these trips, because I always enjoyed them and they’re important for the students. I’ve organized school trips for 20 years; they were always great and nothing really bad had ever happened.
Until the theft of more than 1000 Euro of students’ money out of your backpack in Stockholm/Sweden two years ago. Can you remember how you felt as you realized that your wallet had been stolen?
Ms. Berger-Saalfeld: I was shocked and horrified. We frisked everything, but I knew, that I hadn’t simply lost the purse; it had to have been stolen. All the zippers on my backpack were wide open.
Your employer, the province of Rhineland-Palatinate, did not want to replace the stolen money. He said that it was not necessary to have so much cash in your purse. You should have paid with a debit or credit card.
Ms. Berger-Saalfeld: That is impossible and unrealistic. On a city tour for example it is often not possible to pay via ec or credit card. It was the first day of the class trip and we wanted to buy tickets. I intended to deposit the money as quickly as possible into my account. I was fully aware of the threat to have so much cash on me, and all I wanted was to spend it as soon as possible.
Class trips mean constant stress, unpaid extra hours, and sub-par housing, none of which you’d choose if you were traveling on your own. Then your employer says they will not pay for your own financial loss. How did you feel at that time?
Ms. Berger-Saalfeld: I felt betrayed. For me it is a threat by my employer that they don’t take their duty of care seriously. I informed the principal immediately and he called the administrative agency of the state (ADD). And immediately the words “gross negligence“ came up.
I wanted to cancel the trip, but the ADD pointed to the fact, that maybe the parents might seek refunds, because they had already paid for the students’ flights and hotel bookings. Therefore I decided to put up the money myself and not to say a word to the students. They had a good time and I was sure that I would get the money back. It was a business trip, my employer is insured, and theft like this can happen any time.
People with educational experience know that your actions (to carry a lot of cash) are completely normal and is similarly handled by a majority of your colleagues as well. In your opinion: Why didn’t the ADD want to pay?
Ms Berger-Saalfeld: They feared setting a precedent. Even since then no one has contacted me, neither the ADD nor the school administration.
What did you think of the trial?
Ms Berger-Saalfeld: I was not even invited. Coincidently I had free periods, so I was still able to participate the trial. I had the feeling from the beginning that this amounted to a rejection of my suit for damages against the state.
The court said that the students could manage the money themselves. How do you respond to this?
Ms. Berger-Saalfeld: They are out of touch with reality. During the trial I had the feeling that the judges had no clue as to the every day life of a teacher.
The lawyers argued that in collecting the money in a public place, you effectively invited the theft.
Ms. Berger-Saalfeld: We had a limited budget. The students decided at the last minute that they wanted to take a guided city tour. That was beyond our budget; therefore we had to collect more money to pay for that. We explained that to the students and instantly they whipped their wallets out to give us the money, which was not planned. But they handed the money to us and then we took it. This is exactly what happened, and the judges used this as an accusation against me.
Furthermore I think they mixed up the perpetrator and victim. I was pickpocketed; I was the victim and didn’t encourage anyone to steal from me.
How did you secure the money on your recent school trip to Hamburg?
Ms Berger-Saalfeld: This time I only assisted the class teacher and had less responsibility, and a wallet with 200 Euros was stolen out of a handbag of a female student.
How did your colleagues react at time of the original incident two years ago?
Ms Berger-Saalfeld: The teacher’s faculty was split; one group was on my side, but there was another group who believed that I was to blame.
Why have you accepted the judgment and not appealed?
Ms Berger-Saalfeld: My attorney advised me to appeal. I thought about it for a long time. The verdict was all over the media, but in the end I did not want to deal with it anymore.
Everything depends on the meaning of the term “gross negligence“. If everyday behavior is legally determined to be grossly negligent and everything needs a legal disclaimer as a consequence, then the term has lost its meaning.
For example: If I leave students’ money in a restaurant on a table and go to the restroom, this may be considered grossly negligent, but to carry a wallet with a concealed, zipped-up backpack close to the body, this does not even come close to rising to the level of gross negligence.
In the end, were you able to recoup any of the money, or did you suffer the entire loss?
Ms Berger-Saalfeld: Some of my colleagues collected money for me. Furthermore, the class trip to Stockholm was cheaper than we thought, and the parents of the students did not want the money back. My legal insurance has covered the court fees, but I still had to pay around 400 Euros out of pocket.
In the wrong place at the wrong time
Ms Dziendziol, do cases of theft on school trips happen very often?
Ms Dziendziol: No, but it does happen. You must understand that 44,000 teachers work in 1200 schools all over Rhineland-Palatinate. Of course they travel with a lot of cash, but something unexpected could happen at any time.
The teacher feels unsupported by her employer. Can you understand that?
Ms Dziendziol: Personally yes, it is unfortunate that she has to bear the financial loss. However we can only respond according to what the law says. Our case-by-case review has shown, that the teacher committed an act of gross negligence. Our evaluation was confirmed by the court.
The affected German teacher commented that at the end of the trial, no one got in touch with her at all, and that she felt abandoned.
Ms Dziendziol: That depends very strongly on the personality of the teacher. I can imagine, that someone would feel embarrassed by the Loss Adjustment Office of the ADD if they contacted with the person who lost a case.
Did you fear setting a precedent if you reimbursed the money to the teacher, without a trial, even as a gesture of goodwill?
Ms Dziendziol: A goodwill solution is only possible if the law says so, but this is not the case. Statutory provisions, regardless of how pedantic they are, must apply to everyone equally.
I’m having trouble understanding why a wallet being stolen out of a closed backpack is considered gross negligence.
Ms Dziendziol: If someone is dealing with a lot of money in a public place in a large European city, theft is always a possibility. Maybe the class was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even if we wanted to, it was not possible to find some sort of resolution with our colleague.
If such a theft can happen at any time, is that not contrary to the definition of gross negligence, since gross negligence means conduct showing an unusual lack of due care?
Ms Dziendziol: I was not there. In the end, anything can happen anywhere, but to deal with money in a public place in a large city and then get pickpocketed means, that the teacher’s action has caught a thief’s attention. And again: our determination was confirmed by the court.
You said that the ADD can not absorb the loss of 1100 Euro, arguing on the careful use of taxpayer’s money. On the other hand, in our state millions of Euros of taxpayer’s money are wasted on the Nürburgring or at the Airport Zweibrücken.
Ms Dziendziol: We are the administration; we do not form laws, we execute them. Administration can only work within the law. The Nürburgring is an example of political workings. These are two different things that might not be visible to outsiders.
Why does the ADD have a poor reputation among its teachers?
Ms Dziendziol: According to some of our teachers, there are a few individuals who are not satisfied with their situation, or they have a very unique view on many issues. Where many people work, there are always certain problems. Everyone has their own opinion; it has nothing specifically to do with the ADD, as that is in the private sector. We are not forcing anyone to work for us. Everyone is free to go, to find a new job or move to a different state.
Eveline Dziendziol is a press spokeswoman for the „Aufsichts- und Dienstleistungsdirektion“ (ADD) in Trier.
The State Must Be Held Accountable
Sabine Weiland, deputy chairwoman of the teachers union GEW (Gewerkschaftschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft) in Rhineland-Palatinate points to the positive impact of school trips on the students.
They boost the class solidarity and supports social life outside of school. For teachers, however, such a trip can be a stressful and difficult job, and it is human to make mistakes in high-pressure situations.
It is regrettable that you seem to stand alone after such a mistake, and that you are not adequately supported by the state.
A state insurance policy which would cover the loss does not exist.
“We request the state, as an employer, to face up its responsibility and financially support the teachers who are on a class trip in situations resulting in loss,” said Weiland.
Translation into the english language: SHELLIE LABELL & DIRK KUNZ