You are here


How to Stay Out of Court

Balancing school safety with individual rights

We've all seen the pictures-frightened students running from campus, frantic parents milling about the school parking lot, and law enforcement sweeping classrooms. Parents of school-age children distill these events to a basic question-Can that happen at my child's school? Administrators should consider prevailing public discourse about school safety in order to stay out of court and avoid costly litigation, especially when applying rules for student conduct.

Schools must provide a safe and orderly environment for students. Yet school administrators must balance this demand with the need to protect individual rights. The First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution offer protections to free speech, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to due process. These fundamental concepts muddy the waters for site administrators trying to get a clear picture about campus safety.

School officials must have a solid understanding of the law ... and current legislation.

Clearly, school officials must have a solid understanding of the law, current legislation and administrative regulations to provide a safe learning environment where individual rights are protected.

So how can district administrators stay out of court?

Use common sense

"Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are, and doing things as they ought to be done." Certainly, this maxim of Harriet Beecher Stowe will keep one on the right path most of the time. However, it is not enough. Will Rogers once said that common sense "ain't that common." In fact, at some juncture, common sense and the law, or at the very least, education law, have parted ways.

Talk to an attorney

If you have a specific legal question, talk to a licensed attorney who specializes in education law. Some larger districts have in-house counsel or attorneys on retainer. You just have to negotiate the organizational chain of command to get access to the expertise they offer. County offices of education often have an attorney on staff that produces legal opinions or offers advice on various aspects of school operations and instruction. Smaller districts can call on this resource.

Keep in touch with those in the know

Cultivate relationships with knowledgeable people. If you are fortunate enough to be close to a university, foster contact with the education or legal department. They can offer objective perspective on difficult situations and will often refer to bedrock documents or principles.

Read about education law

Education law is increasingly dynamic. What you knew last year may not be enough now. You may know that New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) set the standard for "reasonable suspicion" in search and seizure, but are you aware of Vernonia v. Acton (1995) and the guidelines it set for drug testing of student athletes in high school? In our education law classes, we learned that Goss v. Lopez (1975) set the standard on due process rights for students, but more recent cases like Daniels v. Woodside (6th Cir. 2005) clarified guidelines for alternative placements of students.

Maintain membership in professional organizations

Many of these organizations offer books and periodicals as benefits of membership. For example, The First Amendment in Schools (2003) by Haynes, Charles et al. is a quick read published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum and Development in conjunction with the First Amendment Center.

Keep up-to-date

It's important to keep up-to-date if you don't want to set legal precedents and land your organization in court. Seek out titles that report the law in jargon-free English and offer commentary and application for schools. Some useful titles include the following:

Deskbook Encyclopedia of American School Law 2006, by the Center for Education and Employment Law (, reports court cases and legal opinions in plain English, and student safety and individual rights issues are covered. You might also check out U.S. Supreme Court Education Cases, currently in a twelfth edition from the same publisher.

School Law Advisor (2006) from Quinlan Publishing ( is a useful reference tool with informative chapters on Title IX, constitutional rights, religion and student safety.

Subscribe to professional journals or newsletters

Like many educators, I purchase the right books but don't always have the time to read them. The regular arrival of newsletters can impose discipline on your reading about education law. The Center for Education and Employment Law offers a monthly subscription to Legal Notes for Education ( This provides a handy round-up of current cases in all aspects of education law, including student discipline. School Law Bulletin and Student Discipline Law Bulletin from Quinlan Publishing ( report federal and state court decisions and legislative developments on a bi-weekly and monthly basis.

Subscribe to e-mail alerts

This is a great way to steal a few minutes during the working day to keep up-to-date with school news, including education law. Quinlan's Web site offers a legal e-mail alert, and District Administration ( sends a daily newsletter with school news, including a legal brief. Pick one that suits your needs.

Train those who need to know

District administrators should schedule periodic training for sub administrators about school safety, student discipline and issues pertaining to the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Share knowledge and encourage people to ask timely and insightful questions about district policies and procedures.

In a nod to common sense, Louise Adler, chair of the Educational Leadership Department at Cal State Fullerton, reminded me that many times educators forget that our fore- bearers threw tea into Boston Harbor to send a message to England about their dislike of overbearing administrators. So, it is important to listen to people when they complain. It's important to give due process when we discipline students. And it's important to give a fair hearing to those who wish to appeal decisions up the chain of command. This may be the best advice to stay out of court.

Eamon O'Donovan is principal of Ladera Ranch Middle School in Ladera Ranch, Calif.