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CAS Legal Mailbag Question of the Week – 09/29/22

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Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter

Dear Legal Mailbag:

One of the students at the middle school where I am principal gets all weird and guarded whenever I talk with her.  Obviously, learning to deal with different people in different situations is something that all students should do, and I reached out to her mother to work together to moderate the daughter’s reaction to me. Well, the acorn did not fall far from the tree.  When I spoke to her, the mother became defensive and told me that I must be coming on too strong and making her daughter uncomfortable.  I told her that I do not have that problem with other students, but she shut down the conversation. That was that, or so I thought.  But right after our conversation a couple of weeks ago, the mother sent me a letter, repeating her claim that I am somehow to blame for whatever discomfort her daughter feels when I speak to her.  In her letter, the mother went on to demand that I not speak to her daughter without either her or the family lawyer present. At that point, the whole thing seemed ridiculous to me.  I threw the letter away and promptly forgot about her silly demand.  However, yesterday I was investigating a situation in which the daughter was potentially a witness, and I called her down to the office to talk with her.  The daughter came down, and we talked for about fifteen minutes, and I sent her back to class.   The mother’s lawyer just called to say that they will be filing for an injunction to prevent future violations of the daughter’s rights, and further that they will be filing a claim for damages for the unlawful seizure of the daughter when I “kept” her in my office for questioning.  Should I get my own lawyer?

Signed,
Just Doing My Job

 

Dear Just:

As your signature indicates, in talking with this student you were indeed just doing your job, and in a reasonable manner. Accordingly, Connecticut General Statutes, § 10-235, indemnifies and holds you harmless against this claim and any related attorneys’ fees.

Presumably, this claim will be promptly dismissed, because as a school administrator you certainly have the right to talk with students in your school without going through a parent or lawyer. Indeed, the ability to speak to individual students promptly can be an essential part of maintaining a safe school environment, as the courts have recognized.

In Wofford v. Evans, 390 F.3d 318 (4th Cir. 2004), for example, school officials briefly detained and questioned a student in the principal’s office over allegations that she had brought a gun to school. School officials even permitted detectives to question the student. Despite the student’s repeated requests, her mother was not contacted before or during the questioning. The parent brought suit, claiming violation of the student’s due process rights and of the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court ruled that the school district’s actions were permissible, stating:

School officials must have the leeway to maintain order on school premises and secure a safe environment in which learning can flourish. Over-constitutionalizing disciplinary procedures can undermine educators’ ability to best attain these goals. Imposing a rigid duty of parental notification or a per se rule against detentions of a specified duration would eviscerate the ability of administrators to meet the remedial exigencies of the moment. The Constitution does not require such a result.

Here, the student wasn’t even the target of the investigation, and clearly the mother and her lawyer are trying to make something out of nothing.

Legal Mailbag does take issue with your actions in one respect. Throwing out the letter from the mother without responding was a mistake. To be sure, a parent cannot unilaterally impose a duty upon a school official, and asking that you speak to the daughter only with her present was unreasonable. But by failing to set the mother straight, you may have exacerbated the situation. In the absence of objection on your part, the mother may have presumed that you would comply with her request. Any such presumption on her part was unjustified, of course. However, when such demands are made, Legal Mailbag suggests that school administrators deal with them directly, informing the parent (or the lawyer) that they will not be following any such requested protocol and explaining why.

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