May/June 2021

An Ounce of Prevention: Why Legal Training is Essential for Your District

By Dana Fattore Crumley and Kendra Yoch

A teacher chastises a student for their political views during a class discussion. A bus driver ignores two high school students kissing in the back row of the bus. A school administrative assistant turns away a family that has no birth certificates for their children. A teacher complains on Facebook about comments her male colleague made to female students during a co-taught class.

These may seem like unrelated situations, which can hopefully be corrected through follow-up by an administrator. In reality, these missteps are linked by what they started — all were the inciting incident for either a lawsuit or damaging media coverage that the school districts in question spent considerable time, money, and resources dealing with. And even when legal defense works to shield the school district from liability, the damage to the public trust is not easily restored.

But there is a more positive takeaway to glean from these incidents and the trouble that resulted. School districts can prevent situations like these by equipping all staff members with the legal knowledge they need to resolve, rather than ignore or escalate, the problems schools face every day. As attorneys who have been working with public school districts for decades, we have learned that most problems — and lawsuits — are caused by ignorance and lack of awareness, not ill intent. And we have found that district staff members, from principals to lunchroom assistants, have a strong desire to make decisions that put the interests of students first, are fair, and are faithful to the rule of law. This is why one of the most valuable sources of professional development for your staff, at all levels, is your school attorney.

While administrators regularly consult with school attorneys to seek counsel or problem-solve, teachers and paraprofessionals are on the front line with students and parents and are often called on to make decisions that impact a student’s legal rights in the moment. A call after the fact, while instructive, will not provide the same benefit to your school district that proactive training can. Such training, especially when interactive, will empower your staff members to handle decisions with confidence that they are using best practices, both from a legal and practical perspective.

We want to create a positive, welcoming atmosphere for all students. And school staff members are working every day to provide that constructive learning environment. The teacher who criticized a student’s political views in class was doing just that — trying to shield a group of students who felt that the political speech was threatening to them based on their racial identity and religious backgrounds. Yet by espousing her own views, she set off a firestorm among many parents, who claimed that the teacher was wrongfully imposing her personal views upon their children.

Had the teacher previously received training about the standards that apply to public school teachers in terms of political speech, and been provided the tools to promote student safety and well-being while respecting the boundaries of the First Amendment in the classroom, she may have been able to avert the controversy and mistrust that followed her comment.

The impact of the First Amendment on teachers and students is just one topic where school staff members, not just administrators, need information and training. There are many others:
  • Abused and neglected child reporting. As mandated reporters, all school staff members play a critical role in keeping students safe. When it comes to student safety and well-being, there is no room for error. Regular training is essential.
  • Student residency and homelessness. Residency determinations must be made in light of the requirements of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act. Understanding which documents are required and how to respond to parents who may not have them is critical for all front-line staff members who assist parents with enrollment.
  • Student records and confidentiality. Maintaining the confidentiality of student records is a cornerstone of parent trust. With many school professionals working with students, it is critical everyone, from the principal to the paraprofessional providing daily assistance, understands their part in keeping student information confidential.
  • Title IX. Your bus driver may not want to call out the students kissing on the bus. But allowing such conduct to continue could lead to a Title IX complaint for student-to-student harassment. And the teacher’s complaints on Facebook about comments her male colleague made to students? That is also a concern, not just from a public relations lens, but in that it poses significant risk to the school district of not adhering to the requirements that govern Title IX complaints and investigations. Having the appropriate policy in place only goes so far— staff must understand how to follow policies and procedures to effectively address complaints.
  • Special Education. The obligation to identify, accommodate, and instruct students with special needs is not just the responsibility of special education teachers. All staff need to understand their roles in adhering to IEPs and 504 plans and protecting students with disabilities from discrimination.    
The time you have to devote to training school staff is limited, particularly this year when training on remote platforms and health and safety measures have been a significant undertaking. But investing time training all staff on these critical legal issues, especially using interactive programs that allow for participation and questions, can prove invaluable when your district is able to appropriately handle sticky situations and avoid litigation and controversy.
Dana Fattore Crumley and Kendra Yoch are attorneys with Franczek P.C. in Chicago.