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Parental Rights


Q. I thought schools couldn't supercede the rights of parents, when it came to anything that happens in public schools. Aren't we the customers, and they the public servants? Then why does it often seem as though the educators call the shots, not the parents?


Under the legal concept of in loco parentis, which is Latin for "in the place of the parent," schools have the legal responsibility to take on some of the functions of a parent while the child is in their custody. The legal view is that the school employees are both representatives of the government and surrogate guardians for the parents.


As issues in public education become more and more complex, and as our society has become more and more diverse, there has been more and more conflict. And, you're right, the parents have been getting the short end of the stick in recent clashes. It's ironic, since our schools are supposed to be hotbeds of tolerance and pluralism . . . but all too often, it is parents with a traditional point of view who are "losing," and educators who are more liberal who are "winning."


Examples: parents of young grade-school children who have objected to the presentation of same-sex marriage in school curriculum as perfectly OK although that practice violates the religious principles by which they are rearing their children . . . parents who would not allow their teens to go to an R-rated movie because of the sex, violence and profanity in it who can't understand why it's OK for a teacher to show one in the classroom without their permission . . . parents who are Christian, Jewish or other religions who don't see why it's legal for the school to place children in the worship posture of Islam repeating Islamic sacred sayings, while their own religions are censored, ignored or even ridiculed.


Here's why it's happening: the courts say a public school is empowered by the government to act in the best interests of the children as the school sees fit, not necessarily in perfect synch with parental wishes. Parents aren't allowed to custom-tailor the content of the school day to suit their opinions, or else there would be no academic freedom for educators.


This has increasingly led to a clash between conservative parents and more-liberal educators in areas such as sex education, political activism and curricular choices that favor contemporary themes and authors instead of the classics of history.


The courts have further empowered school officials through legal decisions which have established that minor children in public schools have narrower First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights than adults in society at large. That has paved the way for censorship of student publications by school officials, searches of student lockers, and so forth.


Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1920s that parents, not school officials, had the ultimate right to control the upbringing of their children, the state courts have tended to act to erode that pro-parent principle. But the voters and their representatives don't like it. When the California-based Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals contended in 2005 that parents' right to control the upbringing of their children "does not extend beyond the threshold of the school door" in Fields v. Palmdale School District, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 320 to 91 to chastise the court and call for parents to remain in authority and control.


What can and should parents do, to preserve their "unalienable" rights. Suggestions:


n       Contact your school board and state and federal legislators asking for policies and laws that preserve the parental prerogative to be the major player, and keep schools the minor player, in child-rearing matters.


n       Don't sign "parent contracts," and don't let schools refer to you as their "partner." You're not. You're in charge, and they are the vendors serving you and your child. Don't downsize your rights and responsibilities, or abdicate your duties.


n       Write letters to the editor and to politicians urging that medical decision-making remain the purview of the parent. For example, there have been schools that have threatened to expel students whose parents refuse to put them on psychotropic drugs for behavior control. Other schools have caused controversies for attempting to mandate some of the newer vaccinations, including the one for human papillomavirus. The wiser course would be to keep those medical actions optional, since many parents believe in less-invasive methods of controlling behavior than medication, and are teaching their children to remain sexually abstinate until marriage, negating the need for protection against a sexually-transmitted disease. Those parents deserve the liberty of making those decisions for their children, not transferring that liberty to school officials.


n       Urge school officials and elected officials to make controversial course content, classes and assemblies that violate parents' sincerely-held religious beliefs optional, not mandatory. Also, those parents who want their children exposed to this content should opt them in, rather than making parents who don't want their children exposed to it suffer the social consequences, which in schools can be quite painful, of opting them out.


n       If you find yourself in considerable and frequent conflict with the school over questions of morals, values, worldviews and so forth, and you've worked your way courteously up the chain of command and gotten nowhere, it would probably be best to put your child in private school. There, the parents are clearly in charge, since they pay the bills. But be sure to write letters to school officials and the press explaining why you felt you had to make that financial sacrifice. If enough people would "vote with their feet," and disenroll their children as a matter of principle in districts that are antagonistic toward parental rights, the loss of revenue associated with that disenrollment would be likely to swing the balance of power in schools back to parents' favor.


Homework: The website is working toward a constitutional amendment to protect parents' rights.


By Susan Darst Williams Parental Involvement 38 2008


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