Class Action

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

Class Action

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

a teacher being pummeled by parents throwing red dodgeball

“School boss: Student has right to wear Confederate clothing” PLUM, Penn.

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.

“School boss changes ruling, bans Confederate flag clothes” PLUM, Penn.

broken scale with a fallen red apple in front

“There are the needs of the teacher and the school as a whole, and there is the need of the student who is at risk. What do you do?”

“Ocean County first in N.J. to equip school nurses with Narcan” TOMS RIVER, N.J.

“Teen suspect in shooting outside school to stay in custody” WEST JORDAN, Utah

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.”

“Suspended novels return to school shelves in Virginia county” ACCOMAC, Va.

“Education board member resigns over anti-white tweets” CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.

“Family pushes for cyberbullying laws after teen’s suicide” TEXAS CITY, Tx.

Code of Conduct
Andrew Minor ’04 (SFA), who is among UCAPP Law’s first enrollees, says that school principals and superintendents “are in the messy business of human development, which is unlike a corporate model.” Yet these educational leaders still need to be able to make sound decisions — in what Minor says is “usually a very gray setting” — while balancing the interests of many, including teachers, students, and parents.

Minor is a high school art teacher in Farmington, Conn., who decided to seek a law degree as one way to diversify his skill set. The son of a UConn law school alum, Minor — who had long admired his father for the legal support he offered to friends and family in times of need — was also inspired to pursue his own legal education in order “to advocate for the arts, students, and the community.”

While leading his lessons in ceramics and sculpture, Minor says he is already seeing valuable practical applications for his newfound legal knowledge. He finds himself conversing with his art students about landmark free-speech court rulings and sharing with them relevant knowledge about intellectual-property law. In hopes of educating them to become more informed artists, he also uses examples to which they can personally relate — pointing out, for instance, the implications of blindly accepting terms and conditions of certain social media platforms, which reserve the right to license artwork posted by their users, worldwide and royalty-free.

Minor, who was heading into his second year as a UConn law student when he learned of the joint program combining law and educational leadership, says he felt “vindicated” for having sought to expand his career in education with a law degree.

“Legislators are passing more laws to try and protect students, but administering those laws in the schools is complicated,” he says, adding that some policymakers may have an “insufficient understanding” of the reforms they are attempting to institute or the impact that certain mandates can have in the classroom.

He offers the example of a school that may lack some of the necessary support services for students.

“As an administrator, if there is [a student causing] some potentially dangerous or disruptive behavior, you need to get them out of the classroom so that the teacher can address the needs of the rest of the students,” he says. “But the legislators have made it very difficult to remove those students. So there are two sides: There are the needs of the teacher and the school as a whole, and there is the need of the student who is at risk. What do you do?”

Knowing that the overlap between schools and legal issues certainly “isn’t getting less complicated,” Minor took on the additional layer of UCAPP curricula in part because of the opportunity he believes it will provide in approaching school policy from different sides of the table.

“For people who have gone to law school and then decided to go into education, there was something in law that didn’t meet some kind of need for them; or you’re a teacher who was turned off of teaching and went to law school,” he says. “I’m approaching this feeling positively about both. At the end of these experiences, I will have great insight into different approaches to developing lifelong learners.”

Minor continues to work full time as an art teacher and plans to complete the combined program in four years.

‘Invisible Red Tape’
Just as “states are beginning to recognize the importance of legal training in the operation of schools and school districts,” says Green, UCAPP Law may now offer young people interested in social justice a career path that combines the best of both worlds.

Green says that, especially the students of color he’s talked to through the years, want to get into law, and to use their legal skills for good. “They thought they had to make the choice between education and law,” he explains. “But school administration is a way they can take their legal skills to help create an environment that protects students in schools.”

Graduates of the UCAPP Law program will be able to seek admission to the bar and, with five years of teaching experience, also will become eligible for endorsement as a Connecticut Intermediate Administrator, a statewide certification required of educators serving as administrators in Connecticut’s schools.

In addition to the JD degree requirements, the program incorporates UCAPP coursework covering such topics as education policy and school climate — as well as an internship that places enrollees in public schools run by educational leaders with successful track records of running highly functioning schools.

In today’s increasingly complex public education system, where student discipline, privacy issues, ever-evolving social media laws, special education statutes, and other education policies are integrated into a school principal’s everyday job, practical training in law can help “cut through a lot of what I call ‘invisible red tape,’” says Assistant Superintendent Hendrickson, calling the new program “trendsetting.”

“If your time is spent on things other than the priorities of teaching and learning, it’s going to be very difficult for you to move the district forward,” he says. “[Professor] Green gets a lot of credit for making this program happen. In the end, it is going to help the state of Connecticut have leaders who are better equipped for the day-to-day realities of the job.”

Or, as Prakash puts it: “Everyone wins.”

See how a UConn Health program combats school bullying by empowering bystanders

Peter Morenus

Preston Green III, professor of educational leadership and law and the John and Carla Klein Professor of Urban Education, is the mastermind behind the UCAPP Law Program.

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