Do You Know Your Child’s Legal Rights in the Classroom?
It’s back-to-school season again! As parents send their kids back to class it’s important that they are aware of their students’ legal rights — especially in regards to personal safety. Lawyers.com — the largest legal website for consumers — has straightforward advice for common legal concerns parents could face this new school year. I had a chance to interview Lawyers.com Editor-in-Chief, Larry Bodine, Esq. about some issues families might face.
1. Why are parents often unaware of some of the legal rights they and their students have in the school environment?
When school starts and parents focus on their kids’ classes, friends and sports, it doesn’t occur to them that students still have their legal rights once they pass the schoolhouse gate. They have a right to a safe educational environment when they are in class, and also at recess, lunch or sports practices. Schools can be held responsible for reasonably foreseeable injuries to students. Kids also have a First Amendment right of freedom of speech, so long as it’s not lewd or disrupts the school. This issue just came up when two middle school students wore “I ❤ Boobies” bracelets to school in support of breast cancer awareness. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the school could not ban the bracelets because they were not plainly lewd and because they commented on a social issue.
2. Bullying is a hot-button issue right now. What legal recourse do parents and students have in cases of bullying?
Bullying in schools has finally been recognized as a serious problem. About 77 percent of students have admitted to being the victim of bullying – in person or online. Almost every state has passed an anti-bullying law, and specifically anti-cyberbullying. A child is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions by one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself. Prime examples of bullying include name calling, verbal or written abuse, exclusion from activities and social situations, physical abuse and coercion.
Tragedies of young teenagers committing suicide after being victims of cyber bullying have been a wake-up call for change. Who can forget the horror of the suicide of Megan Meier in 2006. She hanged herself with a belt in a closet after being bullied online by a neighbor who pretended to be a teenage boy.
Parents should start by contacting the parents of the bully and school officials to stop the aggression. The time to call a lawyer is when parents are getting nowhere with the school or the parents of the bully. Often parents of the victim are met with a “boys will be boys” attitude of indifference. However, the school has a duty of supervision and can be held liable for any reasonably foreseeable risk of harm. Bullying can be a crime, and the attacker can be charged with assault, battery, harassment, stalking and disorderly conduct. Bullying can violate civil laws as well, and the bully can be sued for defamation, slander and libel. Adults don’t have to tolerate intimidation, and their children don’t either.
3. Another big issue for schools is liability for injuries. What are the legal issues parents need to consider in case of an injury on school grounds or at school functions?
Students have a right to attend safe, secure and peaceful campuses. Parents trust the schools to keep their children safe. The school’s legal duty of supervision covers lunch, recess and extra-curricular activities – not just class time. Kids have been beaten, raped and assaulted in schools. Parents of children who are injured may file a claim against a school or district for contributing to a student’s harm or failing to keep the premises safe at school. For example, the Miami-Dade School District agreed to pay $1.875 million to the parents of a student who was slain at a high school by another student. Parents of a 17-year-old boy in Florida who collapsed and died during baseball tryouts recovered a $2 million judgment because the school’s defibrillator was not accessible. A Pennsylvania high school student who lost her leg after being struck by an out-of-control school bus won a $14 million judgment against the school district.
Unfortunately, many schools are immunized against lawsuits, because they are part of the government. Further, tort reform laws set limits on the damages that schools must pay. The girl who won $14 million had her judgment cut to only $500,000, which means she didn’t get all her medical bills paid.
4. What are the legal ramifications of school choice? Are parents able to choose their school in every state, regardless of residency?
Each state has its own laws governing the transfer of a student to another school. Whether a transfer is permitted is within the discretion of local school districts. There is a nationwide movement to give parents stronger rights to choose the best school for their children. So far seven states and the District of Columbia have passed school choice programs that let parents choose the education they feel is best. A federal school-accountability law – The No Child Left Behind Act – allows parents to choose other public schools if the school assigned to the student needs improvement or is unsafe. However, 34 states have obtained waivers from the law and have designed their own academic improvement programs.
Parents should start by meeting with the current school guidance counselor and principal to discuss their concerns, and to get a list of schools open to new applicants. Parents should investigate a target school to determine the class size, philosophy, learning environment, curriculum, approach to grades, how “wired” it is, extracurricular activities and library facilities. In deciding a transfer request, school districts will weigh factors such as the effect on class size, racial and ethnic balances, and if it would require more funds to educate the student. Ordinarily, districts are under no obligation to honor a transfer request.
5. Are there often-overlooked legal rights families have that are worth mentioning in regards to education?
Options for students besides public school include charter schools, which are free from many traditional school regulations, and which are sponsored by local, state or other organizations to provide increased educations options. Parents can consider magnet schools, which are designed to attract students from diverse social, economic and ethnic backgrounds. Magnet schools focus on a specific subject, such as science or the arts. If parents can afford it, there are private schools, most of which are affiliated with a religious faith. A last resort is homeschooling, where children may be taught by one or both parents, by tutors and through online programs. Accountability for homeschooling is governed by state law.