Legal Matters

To what extent can a teacher or other school official accept gifts from parents, students, or other third parties? The answer is multifaceted and varies by state.

When a teacher accepts a Red Delicious apple from a student, for example, there are different legal implications than if that same teacher accepts an Apple computer from the student. Take the case of an award-winning teacher in New York City, who was fined $1,800 by the Conflict of Interest Board for accepting a used laptop from a student’s parents. The parents purchased the refurbished Mac, which was worth $881, after the teacher’s personal laptop broke and she did not have access to email outside of school.

This issue extends beyond classroom gifts. For example, one teacher was fined $7,000 in 2019 by the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission after she accepted travel points and money from the travel company that helped her book trips abroad that she had organized for students. Understanding how the law treats teacher gifts and other perks is important to recognize so staff can avoid these scenarios in schools.

The Legal Landscape

Some states address this issue within their conflict of interest laws, and if there is no such law, school districts might choose to address the matter in policy. On the one hand, such rules prevent parents from trying to influence teachers. Indeed, these laws and policies were specifically designed to prevent preferential treatment and claims of bias. On the other hand, some parents simply want to appreciate teachers for their hard work. We provide a few illustrative examples of state laws, codes of ethics, and school policies on the matter.

In Massachusetts, teachers are prohibited from accepting gifts worth $50 or more. They can accept gifts worth less than $50, but they must disclose in writing that they have accepted such gifts. The state ethics commission notes some exceptions to this general requirement, however. For instance, if a teacher were given a plate of cookies from a student, there would be no disclosure required. After all, a reasonable person would not believe that these cookies would unduly influence a teacher. There are also exemptions to class gifts of up to $150, but the specific amounts given by each parent and the names may not be disclosed to the teacher.

Alabama has also addressed this issue. If a teacher violates the law in this state, there can be a fine of up to $6,000, along with possible jail time. (There is no evidence that this law has ever been enforced this way.) Under the law, the Alabama Ethics Commission bans all public employees, including teachers, from accepting a “thing of value,” but teachers are allowed to receive gifts that are worth less than $25. Yet defining what constitutes a “thing of value” is arguably subjective and can result in differing interpretations.

The state of Ohio has tried to explain what might be considered valuable. Ohio’s Ethics Law states that the facts and circumstances of each situation determine whether a gift could have a “substantial” and “improper” influence on an official. The Ohio law also states that the gift must not impact the performance of the employee.

The 2018 Georgia Code of Ethics for Educators requires that educators “shall maintain integrity with students, colleagues, parents, patrons, or businesses when accepting gifts, gratuities, favors, and additional compensation.” Accordingly, teachers may not solicit classroom supplies or equipment from parents of students. Similarly, the Educators’ Code of Ethics in Texas indicates that educators “shall neither accept nor offer gratuities, gifts, or favors that impair professional judgment or to obtain special advantage. This standard shall not restrict the acceptance of gifts or tokens offered and accepted openly from students, parents of students, or other persons or organizations in recognition or appreciation of service.”

Some school districts self-regulate on this matter. For example, the Arlington School Board in Virginia approved a $100 gift cap per family; several other school districts near Washington, D.C., passed similar policies. In the Iowa City Community School District in Iowa, school officials have encouraged parents not to give gifts to teachers. In other school districts in the state, however, communities have taken different approaches. In Iowa, there seems to be some confusion around whether students are considered “restricted donors” under state law. To be certain, sometimes the language of the law is confusing, and teachers may not always be entirely clear whether these laws apply to them. To illustrate, Indiana’s law applies to all “state employees,” but it does not specifically mention school officials or teachers. On the other hand, Ohio’s Ethics Law applies to all people who serve as officials and employees for public agencies in Ohio, and the law specifically includes school districts.

A Lack of Litigation

A common theme among the laws and policies around teacher gifts is to ensure that parents are not unduly influencing teachers. There is a dearth of litigation surrounding this issue. Simply put, teacher gift challenges do not occur frequently, and when they do, those cases are rarely litigated in any meaningful way. One explanation for the lack of litigation might relate to bad public relations—do we really want to fine underpaid teachers who might accept classroom supplies from a parent?

Because teacher gift cases have not been addressed in courts much, there is not a great deal of precedent for how judges should decide teacher gift cases. So, it follows that the law surrounding teacher gifts is more nebulous than other areas of education law might be. Thus, it is difficult to predict how a given judge will rule on specific facts of a teacher gift case.

Also, the laws vary greatly by state, and policies can vary by school district. School districts and their employees should, in turn, be aware of any developments related to teacher gift law in their jurisdiction, along with any statutes that might govern teacher gifts.

Recommendations for Principals

  1. Remind teachers and parents of any laws, codes of ethics, or school policies related to gifts.
  2. Remember that teacher gift laws or policies often also cover school administrators, coaches, and other school personnel.
  3. If a teacher accepts a gift or other benefit and unknowingly breaks a law or school policy in the process, have an existing procedure in place to address the issue—which could save money and time.
  4. If a school district does not have any clear case law or statute to use when drafting its teacher gift policy, consider drafting policy that addresses gifts having a “substantial” or “improper influence” on the teachers.

Jake Snowmanis a third-year law student at Indiana University. He serves as a managing editor on the Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality. Suzanne E. Eckes, JD, PhD, is a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN.

References

Alabama Ethics Commission (June 2012). Guidelines for public officials and employees. Retrieved from ethics.alabama.gov/docs/GuidelinesPublicOfficials Employees7-2012.pdf.

Chapman, B. & McDonnell, M. (June 8, 2016). Award-winning NYC teacher fined $1,800 for accepting used laptop gift from student’s parents. DailyNews. Retrieved from www.nydailynews.com/new-york/education/nyc-teacher-fined-1-800-accepting-laptop-parents-article-1.2666338.

Code of Ethics and Standard Practices for Texas Educators (Dec. 26, 2010). Retrieved from austin.uteach.utexas.edu/uteach-student-handbook/chapter-vii-texas-code-teacher-ethics.

Georgia Code of Ethics for Educators (Jan. 1, 2018). Retrieved from www.gapsc.com/Rules/Current/Ethics/505-6-.01.pdf.

Indiana Ethics Code. Summary of the Gift Rule. IN.Gov. Retrieved from www.in.gov/ig/2352.htm.

Jordan, E. (n.d.). Iowa City School District encourages parents to stop making individual gifts to teachers. The Gazette. Retrieved from www.thegazette.com/ subject/news/iowa-city-school-district-encourages-parents-to-stop-making-individual-gifts-to-teachers-20141217.

Massachusetts State Ethics Commission (2019). Gifts to public school teachers and staff. Retrieved from www.mass.gov/service-details/gifts-to-public-school-teachers-and-staff.

Ohio County Commissioners (2011). Ethics. Ch. 125. Retrieved from ccao.org/wp-content/uploads/hdbkchap125%20-%202011.pdf.

Russell, J. (Sept. 15, 2019). South Hadley teacher fined after pocketing travel company stipends for European school trips. Mass Live. Retrieved from www.google.com/amp/s/www. masslive.com/news/2019/09/south-hadley-teacher-fined-after-pocketing-travel-company-stipends-for-european-school-trips.html%3foutputType=amp.

Scoon Reid, K. (Jan. 2, 2014). School board in Virginia approves teacher gift limit. EdWeek. Retrieved from blogs.edweek.org/edweek/ parentsandthepublic/2014/01/arlington_va_school_board_ approves_teacher_gift_limit.html.