If a lawsuit were to come against your private school due to a disciplinary issue in the classroom, would your classroom management policy help or hurt your case?
Many schools unknowingly have dangerous gaps in their documented classroom policies and procedures. Others inadvertently waive exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, compromising their deeply held beliefs and introducing legal risk.
This article provides tips your school must know to protect teachers, students and parents, and prevent lawsuits from tarnishing your school’s reputation and good name.
How Good Teachers Become Victims of Misconduct Allegations
Many lawsuits against private schools have arisen on the state and local levels due to teachers intervening to prevent school violence.
Schools and lawyers work hard to shield these cases from public scrutiny. However, it’s a significant issue your school must consider in the face of bullying, fights and reports that violence against teachers is increasing.
The following hypothetical illustrates misconduct allegations many schools have experienced. It shows how poorly documented and communicated classroom policies and procedures opens your school to the risk of confusion, violence and legal turmoil.
Mary Smith is one of the most popular teachers at Holy Cross Elementary School. She has worked there for many years and has participated in developing the school’s curriculum and enhancing it several times over the years. This year, Ms. Smith has a large class of 5th graders who, though rambunctious, are responsive to her teaching method. Midway through the year, a new student who has minor learning issues and some challenging behavioral issues attends her class.
When the new student is doing well, she is very successful. When depressed or struggling with other students, she can become disruptive and confrontational.
One day, she physically threatened another child with a sharp pen case. Ms. Smith smacked her hand to drop the pen case. Ms. Smith’s physical intervention resulted in redness to the student’s hand but no swelling or damage.
The student went home and told her father the teacher had struck her on the hand, which hurt badly. The father notified the school and made a complaint to law enforcement. The school spoke to the teacher and placed her on administrative leave with pay while the investigation played out.
Over the next month, Child Protective Services, the county Department of Education, and law enforcement held interviews. Law enforcement and other investigative offices share little information with the school.
Eventually, the investigation found the allegation of mistreatment was unfounded. The school offered the teacher her job back. However, other parents are now questioning the school about what happened and why the teacher is back on campus.
The student’s family withdrew her and threatened a lawsuit. Still, no suit was brought after a year, and Ms. Smith completed the school year without any new complaints or allegations.
How to Protect Your School From Unfounded Allegations
Many teachers hesitate to protect students when violence erupts in the classroom out of fear of legal and vocational repercussions. Unclear classroom policies and procedures are often to blame, breeding an unsafe environment for students and faculty.
Your classroom policies and procedures can quickly go wrong if your policies and terms are undefined, poorly communicated, unevenly administered or contradictory. Below are examples and solutions for these four common gaps in classroom management policy.
1. Clearly define your policies and terms.
Your student and employee handbooks use terms that aren’t well-defined. Be aware that if something is not defined in your handbooks, it will be defined in the courtroom in the event of a lawsuit.
Your handbooks state that faculty are within their rights to defend themselves and use reasonable force to de-escalate a potentially violent situation. However, it’s unclear how much force is considered appropriate.
If a faculty member were to interfere with a school fight and a parent were to press charges, it would be up to the court to decide if the teacher’s use of force was unreasonable. Your school can avoid this precarious situation by defining terms in your rulebooks.
- Don’t use vague language in your handbook or leave terms undefined
- Explain teacher responsibilities and expectations for students
- Make it clear when your teachers may use physical force to de-escalate student fights and when they may not intervene
- Clarify what level of force is appropriate and illustrate with as many examples as possible
- Define grounds for expulsion and other punitive measures
- Request your attorney to review student and parent handbooks to make sure the information is accurate, does not create unintended legal liability or responsibility and meets the legal demands of federal, state and local law
2. Manage parent expectations.
Your classroom management policy is well documented in your handbooks, but most parents and students are unfamiliar with school procedures and expectations because they didn’t read the handbook.
It’s not enough to simply document your policies if parents remain unaware of them. You should follow up with proactive communication to avoid confusion when problems arise. Documenting your policies is a good start to protect your school from legal liability. However, if they aren’t communicated properly, families are more likely to withdraw when an issue arises.
How and when to communicate your policies, procedures and protocol is vital to avoiding unnecessary investigations and student departures. Best practices for adequately managing expectations and communicating your policies include:
- Providing handbooks to every teacher, student and parent
- Orally addressing your classroom management policy during orientation and at touchpoints throughout the year
- Reiterating expectations whenever possible during parent/teacher interactions
- Maintaining effective parent-school relationships with clear communication
3. Administer your policies fairly and evenly.
Some of the policies documented in your handbooks are inconsistently enforced.
A student rolls up the waist of her school uniform to shorten the length. She has male teachers who feel uncomfortable addressing the issue, so she is never reprimanded. Another student hems her skirt and wears it to class. Her teacher sends her home in accordance with the dress code policy. When her mom picks her up, the student tells her that other students regularly wear their skirts at shorter lengths. The mother claims the teacher discriminated against her daughter.
Bending the rules for some students and not others degrades your classroom management policy. If you enact a policy, it must apply to all students equally, and faculty must administer it evenly. Make sure teachers understand their responsibility to enforce the rules. Parents and students should also understand what will happen in the event of negative behavior.
4. Reinforce classroom policies and procedures.
Your school espouses deeply held religious beliefs that guide your classroom management policy. Parents expect you to carry out these commitments, but some of your students and faculty live lifestyles that conflict with biblical values, and they’re not held accountable.
A faith-based school prioritizes modeling and practicing behavior that evidences the Christian faith. However, a gay teacher has been on the faculty for three years. The school professes that homosexuality is a sin, but the teacher is well-loved, so his lifestyle has remained unaddressed.
A new family attends the school and finds out the teacher is gay after seeing pictures of him and his fiance on social media. They approach the school with three other families to address their concerns. The school eventually fires the teacher and states that his lifestyle conflicts with the biblical teachings that ground their school principles.
The former teacher sues the school for discrimination. His lawyer makes a strong case that the school is not acting from a sincerely held religious belief since his lifestyle was well known, and he was allowed to remain on faculty for years.
- Document your mission statement and principles
- Specify how you will uphold them and how you expect students and faculty to live them out
- Clarify disciplinary actions the school will take if students and faculty fail to conduct themselves according to school principles
- Define the limits of your guiding principles in all handbooks; for example:
- Are students and faculty accountable for their off-campus behavior? Provide examples:
- If students post negative information about the school on their personal social media accounts, will they face repercussions?
- Is it cause for expulsion or termination if a student or employee becomes pregnant or impregnates another person to whom he/she is not married?
- If a student or faculty member renounces his/her faith, will he/she be expelled or terminated?
- If a student or teacher is arrested, will he/she be expelled or terminated?
Failing to document and uphold your policies and principles undermines your school’s exemption from certain anti-discrimination laws. This introduces legal risk that could damage your reputation and cause families to leave.
For many schools dependent on tuition, losing multiple families could imperil your school. Moreover, negative public attention could shadow your school for many years. It’s therefore critical both legally and programmatically to properly manage expectations. Your school must communicate how it addresses federal, state and local law to all stakeholders.
Safeguard Your Classroom Management Policy.
Teachers, administrators, parents and students have a role in setting and following school policies and practices. Getting it right requires a thorough understanding of the law and what conduct creates legal liability.
We welcome the opportunity to work with you to protect and enhance your work guiding young minds and hearts. Explore our faith-based for-profit law practice, or contact us for a consultation. We’ll support your mission to offer winsome and effective schooling that attracts support year after year.