How Teachers Can Avoid Legal Tangles

From the Principal's Office Updated June 17, 2015

shutterstock_10584919As a school superintendent, I sometimes feel as if I should have gone to law school, considering all the regulations and laws that drive schools today.

The good news is that as a classroom teacher it’s relatively easy for you to avoid unnecessary legal entanglements. Staying out of court generally comes down to three factors:

>General legal obligations
>Email best practices
>Classroom best practices

General legal obligations

The most common legal issues have to do with serving special-needs students, abiding by the principle of en loco parentis and establishing appropriate boundaries. Here’s a look at each one:

Finding out about special needs regulations

It’s not uncommon for many students to arrive to your classroom with complications related to laws and rules. Some students have:

  • Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), which require you to significantly modify tests and activities.
  • Section 504 plans, designed to address life-altering conditions such as medical issues and learning needs.
  • Unique family situations that require individual attention.

The key to staying out of trouble with these situations is to be fully aware of your legal obligations and to be willing to modify your classroom practice as necessary. Make it a point to read all IEPs and other key documents carefully and to seek advice from your supervisor or your school’s Child Study Team.

Adhering to en loco parentis

When I meet with new staff members, I always make it a point to remind them that from a legal and ethical perspective, that they are a de facto parent to their students. Therefore, you should always treat the children well and make it a point to offer complete supervision at all times when they are under your care. This includes taking attendance regularly during the day, never leaving them alone in the classroom (that’s a big one) and keeping tabs on them whenever they have to leave the classroom for any reason.

If you run an after-school club or sport, never leave before all your students are picked up. You don’t want to be the last person to see a child who has been left unattended.

Setting boundaries

Good teaching, by its very nature, requires an emotional connection with your students. The best teachers project an attitude of caring and high expectations to their students, but they also make certain to avoid any situations that can blur those lines.

Under no circumstances should you ever share your personal email address with a student. Furthermore, avoid texting or speaking to a child on the phone without a parent present. I’ve seen staff members act in the best of intentions and find themselves in uncomfortable situations. Be sure to keep those lines of communication open and transparent.

Email best practices

I’ve found that teachers rarely suffer significant consequences on legal issues, but when they do, often their use of email proves to be a complicating factor. Though you always want to focus on students and teaching, if you want avoid legal entanglements, you need to be mindful of the best practices for teachers who use email:

Ask yourself how your email will look in a courtroom

Best practices for teachers using emailWhen writing an email, I try to ask myself whether I’d want to have it read aloud in open court. Email is a quick, easy way to make a momentary feeling, thought or idea become permanent. Remember that once you send that email, you own the contents of that email forever. Email is no place to “teach a lesson” or “set someone straight,” no matter how emotionally gratifying it may feel at the moment.

Also, never forget that if a lawsuit happens, your emails on the topic can become evidence in the case.

Use the three-exchange rule

Email is a sometimes wonderful invention. It enables people to communicate almost immediately on a wide range of topics, but unfortunately its inability to convey tone limits its effectiveness and causes misunderstandings.

I strongly advise my staff to to use the “Three-Exchange Rule.” In all but the most benign matters, I ask that once an email topic is exchanged three times, the people involved need to either meet face-to-face or speak on the phone. This strategy helps to clear up any confusion immediately and it prevents email threads from spiraling out of control.

One time I had a teacher show me a 25-email message exchange with a particularly contentious parent. The cleanup from that exchange took much longer than the issue that prompted the original email.

Note when the email was sent

Make it a point to look at the time when the email was sent to you. Parents who tend to send emails late into the night or very early in the morning usually tend to be much more emotional in these emails. As a result, it’s not surprising for the parent to feel differently during a phone call or face-to-face conference the next day.

Don’t assume that the emotion conveyed in a single email will reflect the parent’s permanent attitude.

Take the moral high ground

A common theme of my work with our staff members is that it’s our job to elevate the public’s view of our profession. This includes professional conduct at all times. At some point during your career, no matter how thorough, efficient and caring  you may be, you’ll come across a parent, colleague or administrator who will bait you via email.

Always take the high road. Avoid sarcasm, biting wit or any other written strategy to use words as a stick against someone else. Nothing is worse than having the contents of one of your email messages slid across your principal’s desk to you, and then having to explain the decisions you made.

And never forget the worst-case scenario: your emails being used against you by opposing counsel in a court of law.

Classroom best practices

Given that education is highly regulated and that we live in a society where lawsuits can be filed on a whim, you need to make sure your classroom practices won’t invite legal challenges. While the following commonsense tips will not guarantee you a career spared from litigation (and should not be considered legal advice — that’s strictly a lawyer’s job), they can help you steer clear of legal minefields.

Have fair and authentic assessments

Parent-teacher conferenceThere are two sides to your students’ classroom experience: what you teach and how you measure students’ progress. I strongly advise making certain that your assessments, tests and quizzes are fair, used the same way among classes and returned promptly. Any returned work plays a role in students’ grades, and those results follow them forever.

Do not surprise parents and students

As you may know from reading my other work, a common theme of mine is communication, communication and more communication. I strongly suggest that you get into a regular pattern of notifying students and their families of the children’s progress in the classroom. Do not wait until the last minute to deliver bad news about a child’s progress or grades. And always make certain to notify parents as soon as you begin to sense a downturn in their children’s work.

Don’t make discipline a punishment

I spent my early teaching years in a challenging urban private school environment, where our principal always reinforced to us that the goal of a disciplinary situation is not to punish the child — it’s to prevent a repeat of the behavior that led to the situation in the first place. When students misbehave, it’s tempting to think some kind of punishment will “teach them a lesson,” but you cannot afford to act on that temptation. Focus on identifying what triggered the bad behavior and finding ways to keep it from happening again.

Don’t be too ‘social’ in your media

With the advent of social media, we all live more and more of our lives in the public eye. As a result, it’s not uncommon for well-meaning teachers to improperly disclose information about their students online. The best thing to do is to have your students’ parents sign off any social media that you plan to use during the school year.

Staying clear of legal entanglements is obviously an important factor in your teaching career. Occasionally, I’ve seen conscientious and well-meaning teachers make serious errors in judgment. The most important thing is to make certain that you communicate with all the necessary people, think before you act and don’t hesitate to ask for your help from colleagues and administrators if something happens to cause you concern.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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