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Law in the schools: Myths, fears & realities

A provocative article in the latest issue of the journal Education Next explores a long-term legal trend in public schools. Richard Arum and Doreet Preiss of New York University write in “Law and Disorder in the Classroom” that the number of favorable court rulings for students in school discipline cases has dropped dramatically since 1968. But the number of lawsuits has continued to grow, and they look a little different than they did when they started during the Civil Rights Era:

We also document that although public-interest lawyers were initially motivated to expand student legal rights as part of a larger strategy to reduce social inequality, legal challenges to school disciplinary actions are disproportionately the province of white and higher-income students and their families.

This trend has led to some consequences that might surprise you, they find:

Ironically, the expansion of student legal rights, rather than enhancing youth outcomes, has increased the extent to which schools have relied on authoritarian measures, decreased the moral authority of educators, and diminished the capacity of schools to socialize young people effectively.

Well if  the courts are upholding student discipline more and more, what’s going on here? In part, Arum and Preiss write, state laws and school board policies have become much more detailed about due process requirements. But it’s also a matter of perception. Many students now expect formal due process protections even for minor day-to-day disciplinary actions, not just expulsions and suspensions. And even teachers and administrators sometimes think students have more legal rights than they do.

All of this highlights the importance of legal literacy among school personnel, a topic that was the focus of a whole recent issue of the NSBA school law and policy newsletter Leadership Insider. In it, you can read survey results about what legal issues matter most to different education stakeholders and what some national experts think about the challenge of making sure schools have the legal know-how they need.

First, professors  David Schimmel of the University of Massachusetts and Matthew Militello of North Carolina State University make the case for why school districts should be concerned about how much their employees know or don’t know—or how much they think they know—about the law. Kevin Brady, also a professor at North Carolina State University , and Justin Bathon, a professor at the University of Kentucky and keeper of The Edjurist education law blog, then list a whole range of free online resources that today’s educators are using.

Finally, professor Sarah Redfield of the Franklin Pierce Law Center argues that education leadership programs in higher ed could do a much better job of breaking down the silos between disciplines like education, law, and business management. School districts and children, she says, would be the beneficiaries.

Lots more information and resources on this subject here.

Tom Hutton|August 28th, 2009|Categories: Governance, School Law, Student Achievement, NSBA Opinions and Analysis|

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