Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter
Dear Legal Mailbag:
I enjoyed and appreciated your post on September 29 (Legal Mailbag, September 29, 2022) about a parent telling a principal that he cannot speak with her daughter. There, Legal Mailbag explained that parents cannot prohibit officials from talking to students attending school.
I am following up with the hope that Legal Mailbag can clarify who constitutes a “school official” for this purpose. Similar to what happened to the middle school principal, a parent at our elementary school requested that our school social worker and RBT (registered behavioral technician) not speak with either of her sons. Mom was upset over a DCF call they made, and she wants nothing to do with either adult. Being the only administrator, I sometimes rely on our social worker or RBT to support me with minor school infractions. Our RBT also teaches social skills and works proactively with students who struggle. These two boys would benefit from her instruction, but we’re not sure if mom has the right to deny the social worker or RBT access to her children. Thank you for your legal advice.
Just Want to Be Clear
Legal Mailbag appreciates your being a faithful reader and is happy to clarify the rights of school officials in interacting with students and their parents.
When parents send their children to school, they are delegating supervision and control over their children to school officials, whether they like it or not. Permitting parents to place restrictions on what classes their children will attend or who will interact with their children would be unworkable. For one thing, it would be hard to keep track of such restrictions. Second, school officials have the right to decide on the curriculum and how they will educate children (other than honoring exemptions as parents may request pursuant to statute from the following specific subjects in the curriculum: HIV instruction, family life education, dissection, sexual abuse and assault awareness, and firearm safety instruction). Perhaps most important, as a matter of safe school operation, school officials must be free to talk to students immediately as the circumstances warrant.
Your request for clarification does not relate to safety per se, but rather to how you will operate your school. Here, you note that you would like for the social worker or RBT to interact with these children, either to follow up on minor infractions or to provide educational support. They may do so, whether or not the parent is in agreement. As noted above, as a general matter, parents cannot dictate how teachers and others will educate their children. Accordingly, you may consider the social worker, the RBT or any other staff member to be a “school official” who has the right to interact with a student, the parent’s objection notwithstanding.
In providing this clarification, Legal Mailbag shares with you two further thoughts. First, Legal Mailbag is happy to clarify your legal authority to direct the instruction of children attending your school, despite parent demands or directives. However, whether and how to exercise that authority involves judgment, and there may be circumstances in which you decide to defer to a parent’s request. Sometimes, accommodation of parent requests will be appropriate, and other times it will not be. In the interest of the family/school relationship, school officials should not simply reject such requests, but rather should discuss concerns with the parent and then decide what is reasonable.
Second, you will want to keep in mind the distinction between regular education and special education services. It is fine for your RBT to provide support for students who are struggling, with or without parent consent, as long as such services are provided to students in general and are not considered special education services. By contrast, the social worker’s or RTB’s running a social skills group with children receiving special education could be considered a special education service for the child in question that would require parent consent. Accordingly, while you have discretion in providing regular education supports and services, you should make sure that you have parent consent before your staff members provide special education services to any student.