Student sues counselor over college recommendation letter
Whoa. For those of us who teach high school, here's a reminder about how truly important those recommendation letters can be:
Shannon McCoy's collegiate future looked bright. As a swimmer with two state champion titles and a respectable 3.0 GPA at Lafayette High School, she received scholarship offers from several four-year institutions.
McCoy also received an award for the "highest standards of excellence that embody the Rockwood spirit" four times during her high school career.
But her plans were nearly scuttled by her own high school's guidance counselor, according to a lawsuit filed by her parents late last month.
Beth A. Brasel, the counselor, filled out a recommendation form addressed to Colorado State University describing McCoy as below average in five key areas - initiative, character, integrity, leadership and commitment to service.
The university pulled the scholarship, although it was later reinstated.
Mary McCoy, Shannon's mother, said the family has filed the suit in order to figure out what exactly went on in school's guidance counseling department.
"The reason we're pursuing this civil suit is because there are things we don't know what happened or why," she said.
Kim Kranston, chief communications officer of Rockwood school district, declined to comment, saying the district has not yet been served with the suit.
According to the suit:
Brasel had never met McCoy when she filled out the form.
After receiving the news of the rejection from Colorado State in March, McCoy found herself in a bind.
She had already turned down swimming scholarships from several other universities, including University of Nebraska and the University of North Carolina, after she signed an NCAA National Letter of Intent to accept the scholarship at Colorado State University in November 2009.
All the scholarships offered were based on McCoy's resume as a high school swimmer.
In addition to winning two state championships, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named McCoy to its all-metro swimming team four times, twice to the first team. Lafayette High School also awarded McCoy Lancer Student Athlete awards three out of her four years at the school.
When McCoy signed the letter of intent, Colorado State University's athletic department issued a press release announcing McCoy's intent to swim for their university.
After receiving the news from Colorado State, McCoy and her parents spent three months unsuccessfully trying to find a suitable substitute.
A resolution finally came in June when Colorado State reversed their decision, accepting McCoy on a full athletic scholarship for the incoming class.
The university based their decision on documents filed by McCoy to appeal her initial rejection by the university.
Though McCoy will attend Colorado State in the fall with a swimming scholarship, her parents filed suit based on financial, emotion and psychological harm they claim they and McCoy suffered during her period of uncertainty.
Mary McCoy, who is not a lawyer, is representing her daughter in the lawsuit with the help of an out-of-state attorney who is a relative. The suit was filed against the school district, Brasel and John Shaughnessy, the principal of Lafayette High.
The suit claims that the guidance counseling department of Lafayette School conspired to bar McCoy from receiving her scholarship through submitting a "derogatory and inaccurate" recommendation form.
According to the suit, during the three-month time period between McCoy's rejection from Colorado State and the reversal of the decision, McCoy and her parents suffered direct and indirect consequential damages.
The suit seeks a total of $75,000 in compensatory damages, punitive damages and pre-and post-judgment interest.
"If the department procedures are found to be flawed, our main goal after finding out why this happened is to correct it so this doesn't happen again to any other student," Mary McCoy said.
The McCoys may get an attorney in the future, she said.
"There's so much we don't know," McCoy said. "We don't know where we're heading, as far as that goes. We haven't even thought that far in advance."
So as I read this, I wondered: what is the case law on this subject? And I found this discussion about the liability of counselors in giving erroneous advice here:
The complaint indicates that, as a direct result of receiving the recommendation form, the Colorado State University admissions office declined to admit Shannon to the university, leaving her without any other viable options for receiving a college scholarship to a four-year institution. In 2003, the Wisconsin Supreme Court applied governmental immunity to a guidance counselor sued by a student to whom the counselor had provided inaccurate information regarding student athlete scholarship eligibility requirements, causing the student to lose a four-year university scholarship. Scott v. Savers Property & Casualty Ins. Co., 663 N.W.2d 715 (Wis. 2003). Before Scott, the Iowa Supreme Court recognized a cause of action for educational malpractice by a student against a guidance counselor based on the counselor's negligent representation that a course would satisfy the National Collegiate Athletic Association's core course requirements for eligibility. As a result of the counselor's mistake, the student was ineligible, and his athletic scholarship was revoked. The court concluded that a school district can be held liable for educational malpractice just as an attorney can be liable for legal malpractice. Sain v. Cedar Rapids Comm. Sch. Dist., 626 N.W.2d 115 (Iowa 2001).]
So there's not much there about a teacher's (or counselor's) liability in filling out recommendation letters.
I write recommendation letters all the time. I work over them, writing each one very specifically. I have been told that some teachers use a boilerplate, but I think that is wrong and makes the whole recommendation letter pointless.
However, every so often there is a request from a kid that I cannot in all honesty recommend very highly. So I have been known to say no rather than lie or exaggerate.
Before I DO agree to write a recommendation letter, I ask the student to provide me with a college resume (our college counselor has all the kids who wish to go to college do this and a listing of the classes they've taken, since it has sometimes been a while since I had that student in class. I am very careful to be honest in filling out the recommendation on what is known as the "Common Application" that is used to attend many highly selective schools. One part of this form contains a survey of personal and academic qualities with a range of check-boxes running the gamut from "poor" to "one of the top students in my career" or something like that. In all of my time filling out these applications, I have checked that top box three times. All three kids were National Merit Finalists, yes, but also amazingly selfless peer helpers, active in their community, and deep thinkers and lovers of knowledge. These were kids who had their heads on straight and their hearts on fire. I cannot in good conscience check that box very often, no matter how "nice" a kid is.
I have no idea if what the counselor wrote was honest or a vendetta, of course, but I will say this: getting into a college or attaining a scholarship is serious business. If you are not willing to put in the time to write an honest yet positive recommendation, just say no when kids ask you. You'll be doing yourself a favor.