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How to handle a disruptive parent
By the New York State
Association of School Attorneys
Public school districts generally encourage
parents to visit schools, communicate
with faculty and administrators, and
attend school events. However, the conduct
of some parents can be abusive. When rude
behavior interferes with the district’s ability
to educate its students, or a parent poses a
danger to the district’s students, staff, or
property, the school boards and their designees
have lawful ways to limit that parent’s
access to district property or ban the
parent altogether. However, such actions
should never be taken lightly, and generally
only as a last resort.
The Education Law requires that
school boards adopt a code of conduct “for
the maintenance of order on school property,
including a school function, which
shall govern the conduct of students, teachers
and other school personnel as well as
visitors and shall provide for the enforcement
thereof.” Most school boards dedicate
a section of the code of conduct to visitor
conduct. A school district must clearly set
forth the consequences for violations of its policies, including
provisions for limiting access to school property
and ejection from school property. Parents, as members
of the public, are subject to the code of conduct and the
visitor policy.
The difficulty, of course, is in determining when restricting
a parent’s access to school property is justified,
and how to narrowly tailor the restrictions under the circumstances
to ensure that the district does not impinge
upon the parent’s rights.
Any instances of physical aggression should be addressed
by immediately calling the police or other appropriate
authorities. The more common situation
involves a parent who is verbally abusive to school personnel,
other parents or even students. One can only
speculate on why this occurs. Some parents seem to believe
that they can achieve their objectives by berating,
demeaning and harassing others. In other cases, the parent
is voicing frustrations, albeit in a very unpleasant
and inappropriate way.
While school officials invariably view verbal abuse
as an intolerable disruption, the bullying parent may
claim a right to free speech, a right to access to district
property or a right to be free from “retaliation” for exercising
constitutionally guaranteed rights.
Although everything depends on the circumstances,
the law generally is not on the side of bullies. School
districts need not “tolerat[e] inappropriate behavior on
school grounds and/or harassment of school students
and/or employees,” according to the commissioner of
education. “When such conduct occurs, school district
officials are encouraged to seek the assistance of law enforcement
and/or the courts where necessary to ensure
the safety of students, staff and/or school property.” [Appeal
of Anonymous, with reference to Cina v. Waters.]
Courts and the state commissioner of education
have upheld the discretion of school boards and their designees
to restrict the access of parents to schools if their
presence is disruptive to school operations. School districts
also have discretion to ban individuals from school
grounds if those individuals pose a danger to the district’s
students, staff or property. The individual who has
been banned or had access restricted would be unlikely
to prevail on a First Amendment claim against a school
district as long as the district can show that its action
was not based on the content of the parent’s speech but
for the disruptiveness or danger that accompanies the
parent’s presence on school property.
As a practical matter, we recommend school administrators
handle badly behaving parents the same way
they handle badly behaving children or staff: with measured,
appropriate responses that are consistent with
school policy.
When faced with an abusive or disruptive parent,
the first step is to carefully document the parent’s conduct
and statements immediately after the incident occurs.
The conduct and statements should be analyzed
and the school district should respond to each incident
in accordance with its policy.
Progressively severe responses to a disruptive parent
may include the following:
• An initial warning, in writing, that the parent must
comply with district policies including the code of
conduct and visitor policy and that the individual is
expected to behave in a civil manner towards all district
employees.
• A reasonable restriction on how communications to
the district should be submitted, with specifics regarding
time, place, and manner of those communications.
• A ban from school property, absent express written
consent by the superintendent of schools, and more
stringent time, place, and manner restrictions on
communications to the district.
Disruptive parents can crop up in any community.
Even the best handling by school officials can have fallout
including bad publicity and lawsuits. Be sure your
school policies are well-constructed and that your administrators
know that you want their energies focused
on the mission of educating students. When it comes to
bad-behaving parents, often the best anyone can do is,
“keep calm and carry on.”
Members of the New York State Association of
School Attorneys represent school districts and BOCES.
This article was written by John P. Sheahan and Barbara
Emigholz of Guercio & Guercio, LLP.

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