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Legal Protection for Science Teacher Employees

By Ken Roy

Posted on 2024-05-16

Legal Protection for Science Teacher Employees

I. Intervention and Retaliation

Science and STEM instructional spaces (laboratories, classroom and outdoor sites) and related areas (preparation rooms and storerooms) can be potentially hazardous, including resulting health and safety risks. Safety training unfortunately often involves only teachers in those instructional spaces and not supervisors and administrators. In some situations, teachers following legal safety standards and better professional safety practices directly intervene in student safety violations in their instructional spaces. Although they have the responsibility to do so, sometimes they face retaliation from the school administration for intervening.  

Remember it is the science or STEM teacher who is responsible legally for all aspects of safety to protect students and others working in their instructional space. The administrator could be involved in shared liability, but legally it is the teacher—who has the academic background, training, and experience—who is responsible. Administrators need to understand that in these instances, the teacher is protecting not only the students and other instructional space occupants, but also the administration and school. 

II. Employee Protection

School science/STEM teachers and other laboratory instructional space employees are protected by various federal and state laws, as well as local and school regulations and policies, against administrative intervention and retaliation for intervening on safety violations. Examples of key employee protection avenues include the following.

A.    Federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and Federal OSHA-approved State programs are primarily concerned with ensuring safer and healthy working conditions for employees in the United States, including teachers in most public and private schools. For example, if a teacher intervenes on a student safety violation and faces retaliation from the school administration, OSHA does have mechanisms in place to address such situations:

1.    Whistleblower Protection. OSHA enforces whistleblower protection laws that prohibit retaliation against employees who report safety violations or concerns. If a teacher faces retaliation after intervening in a student safety violation in a science or STEM laboratory instructional space, they can file a complaint with OSHA under the whistleblower protection provisions.

2.    Investigation. When receiving a complaint, OSHA will investigate the alleged retaliation. This investigation may involve gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, and examining relevant documents to determine if retaliation occurred.

3.    Enforcement. If OSHA finds evidence of retaliation, they have the authority to take enforcement action against the employer. This can include requiring the employer to reinstate the employee, providing back pay or other compensation, and imposing penalties on the employer for violating whistleblower protection laws.

4.    Education and Outreach. OSHA also conducts education and outreach activities to inform employees and employers about their rights and responsibilities regarding workplace safety and whistleblower protection. This can help prevent retaliation and encourage employees to report safety concerns without fear of reprisal.

5.    Overall, OSHA takes retaliation against employees who intervene in safety violations very seriously and has mechanisms in place to address such situations and protect employees' rights.

B.    Legal Recourse. In addition to OSHA's enforcement actions, employees who experience retaliation may also have legal recourse through the courts. They can file a lawsuit against the employer for damages resulting from the retaliation. The teacher should consult with an attorney who specializes in employment law.

C.    Civil Rights Laws. School administrator retaliation against a science or STEM teacher potentially may be a violation of federal or state civil rights laws. 

D.    Education Laws and Regulations. The U.S. Department of Education and state education agencies may have regulations or policies in place to ensure the safety of students and employees in educational settings. These regulations may include protections for employees who report safety concerns or intervene in safety violations.

E.    First Amendment Rights. Science and STEM teacher school employees are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In this way, they have guarantees for freedom of speech. Should a science or STEM teacher face retaliation for exercising their free speech rights, including discussing and enforcing instructional space safety protocols involving students or other employees for which they are responsible, they potentially have grounds for legal action.

F.    Teacher Tenure and Employment Contracts. Some states have laws or regulations regarding teacher tenure, which may provide additional protections for teachers against arbitrary dismissal or retaliation. Additionally, employment contracts or collective bargaining agreements may include provisions protecting employees from retaliation for reporting safety violations.

G.    Union Representation. If the science or STEM teacher is a member of a teachers' union, they can seek help from their union to address the retaliation. Most unions can help provide legal support to file grievances or other potential recourses.

III. The Bottom Line

If a school employee experiences retaliation for intervening in safety violations occurring in science or STEM laboratory instructional spaces, they may have legal recourse through various channels, such as filing a complaint with OSHA or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or pursuing legal action through the courts.

It's important for school science/STEM teachers and other laboratory instructional space employees to be aware of their rights and protections under relevant federal and state laws, regulations, and policies. Documenting safety violations and any subsequent retaliation can be important for establishing and supporting a case claim, if needed. Teachers also should be aware of legal deadlines for filing complaints or lawsuits, as there may be statutes of limitations that limit the timeframe for taking legal action. It is critical that educators seek advice from legal professionals or relevant advocacy organizations who can provide guidance and support in navigating these issues as soon as possible after the administrator retaliation incident occurs.

Submit questions regarding health and safety issues in science/STEM instructional spaces to Ken Roy at

Follow Ken Roy on X: @drroysafersci.


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