Iconic horror films all have antagonists who grip the viewer’s attention. They lurk in shadows, closets, and woods waiting to make real their threats on the unsuspecting and unwitting. Through the decades, Norman Bates (Psycho), Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Michael Myers (Halloween), Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), the shark (Jaws), and the horror du jour—zombies—have gripped our attention. 

The fear for school leaders of being sued may not be as dramatic as the emotions stirred up by these film icons, but it is just as real. Fear of litigation often gnaws at school administrators, ultimately having an impact on their actions. You may wonder: How do we empower school leaders—our protagonists—to confidently make decisions with potential legal implications?

Developing Legal Literacy

For several years, Principal Leadership has covered various legal issues in education geared toward what principals need to know about legal issues in schools. But what should your teachers know?

A study published in the Harvard Educational Review found that many teachers have had no school law course during their preservice education courses, and most teachers were uninformed or misinformed about the rights of students and teachers. Teachers’ lack of legal knowledge can be problematic for several reasons.

Most importantly, teachers should ensure they are conducting themselves in a legal and ethical manner. The Harvard survey indicated that most teachers learn about the law from their principals. So, principals must stay abreast of legal issues and work with teachers to help them become legally literate.

If principals teach the basic principles of school law as a regular part of their teachers’ professional development programs, then the fear of the law will make way for the real work of teachers: teaching! For example, when teachers understand the laws that govern discipline and the reasonable use of force, they will not be afraid to break up a fight because of unfounded fears that they could be held personally liable if a student is injured, nor will they fear a lawsuit if they put a restraining hand on the shoulder of a second grader who is constantly jumping out of his seat, disrupting the class, and who may injure himself. 

If public school teachers understand that they are agents of the government and are therefore constrained by the Constitution, they are more likely to think and consult with their principal before they search a student or ask that a student take off a controversial political T-shirt because they fear it might offend someone. 

Examples of Lacking Legal Literacy 

There are several legal controversies that could be avoided in schools if teachers and principals have a basic understanding of legal principles. In the first example, a teacher posted inappropriate comments about her students, parents, and colleagues on her personal blog. In one post, she joked about how she would like to write comments on report cards that could best describe her students. She said her ideal descriptions might include “frightfully dim, lazy ***hole, and rat-like.” After school officials learned about the blog, the teacher began to receive negative evaluations, and she was eventually fired. 

Even though the school district ultimately prevailed on summary judgment, this litigation was time-consuming and costly. A professional development session or school law course could have explained that teachers’ rights to free expression are not absolute—especially when discussing students on blogs.

In another case, school officials violated clearly established laws related to the Equal Access Act. In this situation, a high school in Nevada denied a student’s request to form a pro-life club at school, citing abortion as a controversial topic and naming the possibility that a pro-life club would make pro-choice supporters feel left out. 

The student filed a lawsuit to challenge this decision, arguing that it violated the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. The school agreed to a settlement that allowed the group to operate as a noncurriculum-related, student-initiated, and student-led group in accordance with the law. Had school officials been aware of the well-known federal law that allows all noncurricular clubs to meet during noncurricular time if a school establishes a limited open forum, this controversy could have been avoided. 

Legal issues related to church/state matters are often in the spotlight in schools, too. To illustrate, in Indiana, an elementary teacher had a second-grade student sit by himself at lunch for three days and told him he could not talk to the other students. The teacher disciplined this student after he had a conversation with another student about religion during which he said he did not believe in God. The boy was isolated because the teacher believed he was offending the Christian students. 

After speaking with the boy’s mother, the teacher told the boy he could believe what he wanted and allowed him to engage in lunch with other students. The boy’s mother filed a lawsuit against the teacher, alleging she violated his First Amendment rights under the Establishment Clause. If this teacher had had a basic understanding of the First Amendment’s religious clauses, this incident may have been avoided.

There are a number of events and policies that have become distracting forces in the hallways of our schools. Too often the actions of school leaders are motivated by possible adverse impacts of their decisions rather than opportunities. Leading in fear is no way to lead. It’s time for school leaders to become educators again, to generate learning with their faculty and staff, and put the law back on their side. If the educators in the above examples had had an understanding of basic education law issues, these events might have been avoided. When principals take the time to educate teachers about the law, their staff will be empowered to teach to their fullest potential.

Sidebar: Making it Work

How principals can implement legal literacy in their schools:

  • Avoid simple legal mistakes in public schools (e.g., blogging about students, prohibiting clubs from meeting after school) with proper legal literacy education.

  • Set aside ongoing professional development sessions with teachers to address common legal issues, including special education law, teacher expression, student expression, church/state issues, teacher negligence, student discipline, student privacy, harassment/bullying, and child abuse reporting requirements.

  • Work with teachers, coaches, nurses, aides, counselors, social workers, and bus drivers to address legal issues applicable to their jobs.

Regina Umpstead is an associate professor at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, MI.

Matthew Militello is the Wells Fargo distinguished professor in educational leadership at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. 

Suzanne E. Eckes is a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN.