Guest post by Heberto Hinojosa
From small rural to large urban schools across the country, school administrators make hundreds of daily decisions that impact their school communities. We know that these decisions must be led by the overarching question of what is best for our students. However, an equally important component of decision making is the consideration of the legal implications of our actions.
Being an active principal as well as teaching school law to over 100 aspiring principals in the last few years has given me a broad perspective on which education laws are stressed, overlooked, or unclear to different school districts. Throughout course discussions, students in the program share their experiences with the topic, which range from student discipline and special education (which are the most litigated areas of school law), to religion in school, student and educator privacy issues, and more.
Referring to a local resource is always an important step in helping you respond to legal scenarios. A fellow administrator, human resources support, or your school’s legal counsel are good points of contact. It’s also helpful to be proficient with your school board policy, and as you gain experience with it, making decisions according to code will become much easier. Remember to document along the way, as well as to collect statements from all parties involved.
In addition to tapping into your local resources, Findlaw.com is an excellent public domain site that has been very beneficial to me over the years. It offers easy search tools and sections for the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Constitution, and U.S. Statutes. Findlaw also offers a legal dictionary, which is a great way to figure out what legal terms mean. Any state-specific legal resources are likely available through your state association.
Now let’s get in legal mode and put your skills to the test: Respond to the following scenarios shared by current educators and post your decisions in the comments below.
1. Your ELA teacher is trying project-based learning after setting up her flexible learning environments. Two students who were in an open space area begin fighting. Other students notify the teacher, she calls you, and you handle it. Two days later,the parents of one of the students send you and the teacher an email stating that they will be suing you for not monitoring the classroom What do you do?
2. Even after calling home, moving seats, and speaking with a disruptive student, he continued to be disrespectful and was written up for throwing a notebook across the room. Once in the office, you assign him in-school suspension for the remainder of the day and inform him he will not be able to play in tonight’s basketball game. When you call and inform his parents, they rush to the office demanding that you change your decision or they will go to the school board and superintendent as well as sue you if he does not play. What do you do?
3. A coach with 26 years of experience and on a term contract has missed morning duty multiple times and stayed in his office while other coaches go out with the athletes. When he does go out, he uses profanity and is very negative. Two coaches come to you with concerns. What do you do?
4. A parent comes to your office and shows you Facebook messages between their 16-year-old son and an art teacher with a term contract on your campus. The messages are highly inappropriate and of an intimate nature. What do you do?
Religion in School
5. Your school’s volleyball coach is also a Christian athlete’s sponsor. While doing a walk through in her classroom, you see that she has a poster promoting an upcoming meeting as well as a section of her classroom wall covered with bible verses. What do you do?
6. A world history teacher recently gave an assignment for students to research a religion of any culture that has been studied in class. A group of students chose to study Islam. When a boy’s parents found out they became angry and called to meet with you. They claimed that the teacher has no right promoting other religions in school and would like you to investigate. They state that they will go to the media as well as the school board. What do you do?
7. You receive a report that there is a strong odor coming out of the boy’s restroom. As you approach to investigate, two students are leaving. You ask them to stop, determine that the strong odor is marijuana, and walk the students to the office. Once in the office you search their bags and find a small bag of marijuana and a lighter. You call one boy’s parents and they immediately become defensive, stating that you had no right or permission to search his bag without their consent. What do you do?
8. Two students stole money from the school’s snack bar. One is a regular education student and the other receives special education services. What process do you take to determine consequences for each student?
How do you think you would handle these scenarios? Please share your decisions in the comments. What are the legal resources you would use to guide your decision making?
Dr. Heberto Hinojosa is the principal of Fabra Elementary School in Boerne, TX, and the 2016 Texas Assistant Principal of the Year. He also teaches school law at Schreiner University.