As the primary leader in the school community, the school principal has ultimate responsibility for everything that takes place in the school, and in some situations, outside of school. Legally, principals can be held responsible even when they personally haven't done anything wrong. Good school leaders know and understand their legal responsibilities, where the pitfalls may be, and how to avoid them. Here are five legal hazards every principal needs to be prepared for.
Social Media, Social Networking, and Cyberbullying
Whether we like it or not, 89% of teens now have a smartphone and 70% of teens use social media multiple times per day. Seventy percent of pre-teens have their own phones. We may think that the biggest problem this creates is distraction. Students can't resist using their phones in school, and they admit that social media is distracting them from homework and even spending time with friends in person. But those aren't the only problems.
One legal hazard for principals (and teachers), however, is primarily related to interacting with students on social media and having their social media posts examined. More and more students and parents search social media, looking for teacher and administrator accounts and circulating whatever they find. Teachers have been forced to resign after their questionable social media posts have been discovered and shared. Principals can help by creating very clear social media guidelines and recommendations for all staff, including stipulations on following or interacting with students online.
Another serious issue related to student social media use is the problem of cyberbullying. Principals need to be aware of what they can and cannot do about cyberbullying, as more parents are holding teachers and school administrators responsible. As Education Week points out, "School officials must realize that even when harmful online interactions take place while students are off campus, they invariably are related to face-to-face interactions at school."
Cell Phones and Unreasonable Search and Seizure
Given that cell phones are legally protected under the Fourth Amendment, some principals have adopted a "bag & tag" policy where they have the student turn off the phone and place it in a bag, seal it, write the student's name on the bag, and take it to the school office. Rather than looking at the phone themselves if they are concerned that something may be on it that violates school policy, the best approach for principals is to have police look at a student's phone.
Avoiding Out-of-School Personal Responsibility
Principals and, more commonly, teachers may find themselves in situations where they do things that fall outside their normal everyday duties, like giving a student a ride home. In order to protect yourself from potential accusations, be sure to have someone else present. If you're asking yourself, "Can I be sued?" the answer is most likely yes.
Related to this, it's also best to limit physical contact with students. Attorney Brian D. Schwartz says, "I'd never tell you in a million years not to hug a kid." The article continues, "There's a lot of reasons to hug a student and they can benefit from it, but there's also a fine line between what's 'creepy' and what's 'kosher.' If you must hug, Schwartz advises that you control the situation, limit it to younger students, and make sure you are in a public area. You can also encourage educators to resort to the fist bump or the one-armed hug to add an extra layer of protection for themselves."
Parents have concerns about student safety, but when it comes to student discipline, they have many complaints about techniques used, notes a West Fargo Pioneer article. Years ago corporal punishment was the norm. With the phasing out of physical punishment and a zero-tolerance policy, there was a significant increase in student suspensions. Educators then began to realize that suspending students was also not the best approach. "Schools are now more likely to employ counselors, social workers, psychologists and deans to address behavioral issues and use behavioral interventions to help students learn to regulate emotions before a suspension is an option," the article states.
Students have the right to a safe, distraction-free classroom, and with behavioral issues on the rise, principals have to find workable solutions to balance student discipline with student rights.
Dealing With Parents
The issue of divorce introduces a host of questions related to parental rights to a child's records, educational issues and access. Family law and parental rights can be difficult to sort out, particularly with contentious ex-spouses. It is important for administrators to verify which parent has legal custody, where the student's legal residence is, who can have access to student records, who can request changes to the student's education, who gets notifications about the student, and so on.
Being Prepared As a School Administrator
Learning about public school law, advanced problems in supervision, principalship and other related topics will help prepare you to be an effective school administrator. For professionals who want to pursue a career as a school principal, Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) offers a fully online Master of Science in Educational Administration program. This program consists of 30 credit hours and may be completed in as few as 10 months. The goal is to enhance your ability to pass required Texas Education Agency principal exams.
Learn more about TAMIU's online Master of Science in Educational Administration program.
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