Trying to keep students safe while providing them a decent education, school administrators these days are bombarded by questions of privacy and equity that increasingly land them in court. It’s almost like you need a law degree to be a principal these days.
By Stefanie Dion Jones ’00 (CLAS)
Illustrations by Alex Nabaum
If your child were to call his or her kindergarten classmate a name, you might expect to hear from the teacher or the school principal — not from a police officer who just finished questioning your child without having first informed you.
Yet numerous parents in one New Jersey community this past year encountered just such a scenario after school district officials adopted a policy under which nearly every student discipline incident, even minor behavior infractions, were reported to local law enforcement.
The news story on the controversial policy, which received national attention, is one that UConn alum Brian Hendrickson ’10 (6th Year) recalls reading with the reaction “How did this happen?” Hendrickson, who earned a law degree prior to embarking on his career in education, is the assistant superintendent of public schools in Suffield, Conn.
“So many times, school administrators get themselves in hot water because they do not understand the legal ramifications of some of their actions,” says Hendrickson. “Leaders can get bogged down in conflicts and issues. If they had more training, they might have a clearer perspective and be able to more efficiently handle an issue. This would then allow for more time and focus on teaching and learning.”
While the policy has since been reversed, it remains, says Hendrickson, a striking reminder of just how crucial it is for school principals, superintendents, and other educational leaders and administrators to understand the implications of their decisions on the legal front.
From Tweeting to Twerking
One need look no further than the Sandy Hook or Columbine tragedies to understand one of the top concerns for today’s school leaders across the country: safety.
“School administrators want to create a safe environment,” says Preston Green III, John and Carla Klein Professor of Urban Education. “But how do you come up with policies that on the one hand keep people safe, but on the other hand respect the rights of students? You have to think about when you can intervene.”
Green, who also has a law degree and affiliate appointment with UConn’s School of Law, points to a case out of Minnesota where, in 2014, an honors student and captain of the high school football and basketball teams faced a long-term suspension his senior year for a single tweet in which he made a sarcastic joke about a teacher. The student sued the school district, its superintendent, and others — resulting in a $425,000 federal court settlement in favor of the student.
The year prior, a high school in Southern California suspended more than 30 seniors for creating a “twerking” video that ended up on YouTube. When parents threatened to sue the school board for the suspensions, as well as for banning the students from prom and graduation, the school agreed to expunge the students’ records.
“If students are expressing themselves in ways that may not make people comfortable but are perfectly protected by the First Amendment, you don’t intervene,” says Green. “Intervening where you don’t have a legal right to do so may expose you to a lawsuit.”
The spate of cases in recent years in which school districts have faced legal action after making missteps that infringe on students’ rights, particularly amid the rise of social media where the laws are still evolving, prompted Green to consider how UConn could help educate school leaders in addressing this delicate balance between maintaining safety and honoring the rights of students.
Green has since initiated and designed a new academic program at the University known as UCAPP (UConn Administrator Preparation Program) Law. Launched this past fall, it combines the Neag School’s UCAPP educational leadership program and UConn law school’s JD program. Designed for professionals interested in obtaining a law degree as well as certification in educational administration, the program is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.
You Posted What?
Students are not the only ones whose questionable behavior has landed them in the center of legal wranglings of late. Several years ago, a high school outside Philadelphia, for instance, issued laptops to its students. When attempting to track down misplaced computers, it used the laptop webcams to observe and even photograph those students in the privacy of their own homes. After learning of the breach in privacy, the parents of one sophomore filed a federal lawsuit; the school district ultimately settled the case for upwards of $600,000.
Teachers and other school employees across the country have similarly been penalized for their conduct, including actions taken online or outside of school grounds.
In 2013, for example, one Chicago-area high school guidance counselor was fired after self-publishing a racy book giving advice on sex and relationships. Although he sued the school for what he claimed was a violation of his First Amendment rights, the lawsuit was dismissed — on grounds that some students who “learned of the book’s hypersexualized content would be reluctant to seek out [the counselor’s] advice” — in essence, “disrupt[ing] the learning environment” at the school.
Social media has caused its fair share of problems for instructors, too. In Memphis, a teacher was suspended after criticizing her kindergartners on her Facebook page. A teacher’s aide in Michigan lost her job after posting a photo to social media that one of her Facebook friends, who also happened to be the parent of one of her students, reported to school authorities as inappropriate.
These examples may be extreme but are far from uncommon, says Green. Teachers, he says, often do not receive any in-depth professional development about law — whereas properly trained principals and superintendents could be in a position to help bridge this knowledge gap.
“An administrator who understands the law can explain to teachers very clearly that they have to behave in ways that get the students to see them as role models,” he says, and can ultimately help them “understand the connection between their outside behavior and their employment.”
In contrast, without the benefit of legal training, a school administrator “may not even be aware of an issue [and] may not know to pick up the phone to call the school’s legal counsel,” says Anjali Prakash ’93 (CLAS), a practicing special education lawyer who advocates on behalf of students with disabilities and their families in the Washington, D.C. area. Even a baseline awareness around situations that may raise a red flag can be valuable, she says.
The need for administrators to acquire legal training, says Assistant Superintendent Hendrickson, is clear. In dealing regularly with issues as diverse as sexting, cyberbullying, and teacher contract negotiations in his district, he says his background in law has helped him not only in modeling for his staff appropriate approaches to a variety of challenges, but also in identifying multiple solutions to any given issue.
“When you start thinking in black and white, you’re going to make a bad leadership decision,” he says. “I think what legal training does is help you problem-solve. The best lawyers are problem solvers; they help you navigate out of tricky situations.”