Teachers operate in a unique legal situation. The legal relationship between teachers and students is not quite like any other relationship the law recognizes. It provides teachers with significant rights and responsibilities with respect to their students, similar, but not identical to, the legal rights and responsibilities that parents have to their children.
There are many unique legal issues that teachers can face, which people in most other professions do not have to worry about.
This article will cover some of the legal issues that teachers can face, and provide some basic information on how to deal with them should they arise, as well as how to prevent them from coming up in the first place.
Discipline of Students
This is a very sensitive issue, for an obvious reason: parents have a wide range of opinions on what methods of discipline are appropriate. Schools and, by extension, teachers operate in locus parentis (in the place of the parent), meaning that, legally, teachers have many of the same rights and responsibilities toward their students that their parents would.
However, when it comes to discipline, the general assumption is that this is largely the role of the parents. So, in most states, there are laws that place heavy restrictions on how teachers can and cannot discipline misbehaving students. In most states, it’s illegal for school officials to engage in any form of corporal punishment. If you live in one of these states, and a teacher strikes a student, and it’s not clearly in self-defense, the student (through his or her parents, usually) may well have grounds to sue the school.
Just about every school in the country uses suspension or expulsion as methods of discipline. Generally, this does not raise any legal issues. However, there have been instances where students have been suspended or expelled from public schools for expressing an unpopular or extreme opinion on a political, social, or religious issue. Although students’ constitutional rights are somewhat limited while they’re in school, they do still apply. Generally, schools only have the right to censor student speech to prevent disruptions of classes or school functions. They cannot, however, censor student speech because they don’t like the message being expressed.
Bullying and Sexual Harassment
In recent years, the issue of bullying in schools has entered the forefront of the public’s consciousness.
While students are in their care, schools are legally required to take reasonable measures to protect their health and safety. This includes protecting students from bullying and sexual harassment.
If a student credibly reports to a teacher or school administrator that they’re being bullied, the person they confided in should immediately take appropriate action.
This includes contacting the parents of the alleged bully, and taking disciplinary action, if necessary. The worst thing a teacher can do in this situation is nothing. All too often, bullying against students gets out of hand, simply because the people in charge did nothing. Occasionally, this leads to tragic results, including the bullying victim lashing out with violence, or committing/attempting suicide.
In these cases, the families of the victims could fairly easily claim that the school administrators were negligent for failing address the issue, giving them grounds for a substantial lawsuit against the school district.
Accommodation of Disabilities
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), public schools have to make reasonable accommodations for students with physical and mental disabilities. This can include extra time to take tests, features to make buildings more physically accessible (such as wheelchair ramps, and the like), and similar accommodations.
As you can see, there are many complex legal issues that teachers and school administrators can face. This article is by no means a comprehensive guide to all of the legal issues educators may have to deal with at some point in their careers. However, it should serve as a good introduction to these issues, giving you something to think about. Hopefully, it has at least impressed upon you the importance of considering your legal responsibilities as an educator.
About The Author
John Richards is a writer for LegalMatch.com and the LegalMatch.com Law Blog. The above article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed in any way as legal advice relevant to your particular situation. The only person qualified to give you legal advice is an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction, who has been apprised of all the relevant facts of your situation.