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School Law and Ethics

What are your legal rights and responsibilities as a teacher?

  • When applying for a teaching position, you should be familiar with Title IX of the Education Amendments and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. You do not have to answer questions an interviewer may ask that are unrelated to the job requirements, and you are protected from words and behaviors that can be considered sexual harassment.
  • Court decisions indicate that a teacher enjoys job security as long as the teacher's behavior and personal life do not disrupt or interfere with teaching effectiveness.
    The courts hold that the teacher's right to academic freedom is not absolute.
  • Academic freedom does not protect teachers who use obscene, irrelevant, inappropriate, or disruptive materials or instruction.
  • When determining whether a teacher has been negligent in a situation, the courts judge whether a reasonable person with similar training would act in the same way and whether the teacher could have foreseen the possibility of injury. A teacher may be liable for misfeasance (failure to act appropriately), nonfeasance (failure to do a duty), or malfeasance (acting unlawfully). However, educational malpractice is not yet an established legal precedent.
  • As stated by the Supreme Court in Pickering v. Board of Education, teachers are protected under the First Amendment to exercise freedom of speech and to publicly express themselves, unless their statements are malicious, are intentionally inaccurate, disclose confidential material, or hamper teaching performance.
  • Teachers must be sure to comply with Public Law 94-553 (the Copyright Act) when distributing copies of other people's works in the classroom, observing the three criteria of brevity, spontaneity, and cumulative effect. This law also applies to computer software and material posted on the Internet (Digital Millennium Copyright Act).
  • While information in the Internet enjoys First Amendment protection, teachers may legally choose to limit student access to material that is vulgar or educationally inappropriate.

    What legal rights do students enjoy (and do they have legal responsibilities)?

  • Under the Buckley Amendment (the Family Rights and Privacy Act), parents and guardians have the right to see their child's educational record. On reaching 18 years of age, the student is allowed to see the record, and he or she becomes responsible for providing permission for others to see it.
  • Under Title IX, awards, financial aid, and scholarships may not be distributed with sex as a criterion. Title IX also protects students and teachers from sexual harassment.
  • Students have constitutionally protected rights to due process before they can be disciplined or suspended from school. Although corporal punishment is rarely used, courts have upheld the school's authority to administer it as long as it is reasonable and not excessive.
  • The Gun-Free School Act mandates a one-year expulsion for students bringing firearms to school. It is an example of a zero-tolerance policy, some of which when carried to extreme, can harshly punish students for relatively minor infractions.
  • In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, students were successful in protecting their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. As long as students do not disrupt the operation of the school or deny other students the opportunity to learn, they have the right to freedom of speech within the schools. Early"cyberTinker" cases have extended this right to the Internet.
  • Schools must be neutral with regard to religion. Thus, school prayer is not permitted under the doctrine of separation of church and state. The legality of a"moment of silence" varies from state to state.
  • Students in schools enjoy a lower level of protection from search and seizure than typical citizens. The school's in loco parentis responsibility allows it to search school lockers and cars in school parking lots and submit student athletes to random drug testing.
  • Students, like teachers, enjoy the right to freedom of the press. However, student publications can be censored if they are an integral part of the school curriculum, such as part of a course, or if they are obscene, psychologically damaging, or disruptive.
  • Children with the HIV virus, like others who confront medical challenges, have their student status protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
  • The following suggestions for teachers are derived from court decisions and are intended to serve as a basic guide:
  • Read school safety rules, regulations and handbooks
  • Respect student confidentiality in records and forms
  • Notify parents if curriculum materials might be objectionable
  • Exercise forethought (due care) by anticipating accidents
  • Report suspected incidents of child abuse
  • Know and follow due process when penalizing students
  • Keep your meetings with students public
  • Separate your personal and professional life
  • Avoid offensive, sexual, and off-color comments
  • Know and follow district policies regarding corporal punishment
  • Seek medical assistance for student injuries or illness
  • Avoid touching students
  • Follow copyright laws

    What are today's main approaches to moral education?

  • Teachers have an ethical responsibility to safeguard the health and well-being of students. From detecting and reporting suspected cases of child abuse to helping students make ethical judgments, society expects teachers to provide a moral education to students.
  • The public strongly supports moral and ethical education in schools, but rejects the notion of promoting a particular or narrow set of beliefs.
  • The traditional approach to values education was inculcation, where traditional values were imparted in a didactic style.
  • Another approach to ethical education assumes values are best learned through personal reflection and individual analysis, and promotes a strategy called values clarification.
  • Character education promotes a core set of values, including respect, responsibility, citizenship, caring, and fairness. This approach is popular in about seventeen states.
  • Educators such as Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan have attempted to map moral stages of development and build curricular materials based on these stages.
  • Comprehensive values education is an attempt to combine both traditional and analytical approaches by directly teaching some values, like honesty and caring, while encouraging students to analyze their own positions on more controversial issues, like the death penalty.
  • Whatever program is taught, and even if no formal program is taught, what teachers do and say provides a model for students, serving as an"informal" curriculum on ethical behavior.

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