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Teachers' Rights


Q. It's important for parents to know what the legal rights of educators are, just like it's important to know your own rights and those of your child while in school. What are the legal protections and privileges of teachers?


They're too numerous to list. There are laws and court cases guiding consequences of teacher actions from everything from discipline infractions to sexual harassment claims, dress code violations to alleged possession of alcohol on school grounds.


Teachers' unions and professional associations do a good job of instructing educators on what their legal rights are. You could ask for a copy of their brochures or look on their websites for more information. A good school district will have clear policies to guard against violations of the constitutional and other legal rights of teachers, and parents should have access to that information, too.


In general, the rules of thumb for teachers to avoid getting into legal trouble include:


n       Don't touch a student, or if you have to, to teach a lesson or in coaching, then ask his or her permission first, and of course keep your contact on the non-controversial parts of the body;


n       Don't ever be alone with a student, or if you are in a classroom or office with just one student, make sure to keep the door wide open and sit where you can be seen from the open door. Don't give rides, don't take students home, don't go to the swimming pool with them in the summer . . . just don't go there.


n       Don't write personal notes or emails to a student, and don't joke with him or her. It's far too easy that anything you say or write could possibly be misconstrued.


n       Don't handle student money, or if you have to, do not run money through your own accounts; keep good documentation and receipts, and lock any cash or credit cards you ever have in school.


Here's a brief listing of other legal rights of teachers:


Union Membership Not Mandatory Anywhere

In no state can a teacher be forced to be a union member. In "right to work" states, teachers can't even be forced to pay a dime for union representation if they choose not to pay dues. However, in the northeast third of the country, and in the western states of Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado and New Mexico, teachers who choose not to join the union and pay dues still can be forced to pay the pro-rated costs of collective bargaining, union contract administration and grievance adjustment. See the U.S. Supreme Court case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 1977.


Teacher Speech and Association

In the 1952 Supreme Court case, Adler v. Board of Education, a principle of protection for children was established in that joining Communist organizations advocating the overthrow of the government by force, violence or law-breaking could be grounds for disqualification of a teacher's employment. That doesn't violate a teacher's free-speech rights, since they are still free to say what they think and associate with whom they please OUTSIDE of a school job. Since teachers are influencing other people's children in a government-sponsored situation, the court ruled that they couldn't be allowed to advocate treason and violence to a vulnerable captive audience of children.


Job Protection For Proper Exercise of Free-Speech Rights

On the other hand, under another Supreme Court case, Pickering v. Board of Education (1968), it was ruled that a teacher couldn't be fired for writing a letter to the editor criticizing the school board and superintendent for money-raising and handling activities, even though some of what he claimed was later proven wrong. The money-handling data was a matter of public record, and the teacher was communicating in a public forum - the local newspaper - so teachers were judged to have the same free-speech rights (and responsibilities) as any other taxpayer.


Homework: For more about teachers' rights, especially with regard to the Christian teacher in the public-school setting, see the article bank from the Christian Educators Association International,


By Susan Darst Williams Parental Involvement 40 2008


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