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Let me give you the typical lawyer answer: Maybe. Every parent knows that it’s hard enough to keep their child safe at home, but a whole new set of challenges can arise when the child goes off to school. Some fear their child may be bullied or harassed; while others fear their child’s sense of privacy or free speech may be jeopardized. Parents are also concerned with whether the school provides appropriate levels of safety measures or whether there is a solid school discipline policy in place.

Over the course of two decades, the personal injury attorneys, criminal law attorneys, family lawyers, and corporate attorneys of Massillamany & Jeter have dealt with a number of clients having issues with their children in school. The following is just a sample of the issues we see and where we can help.

1. Bullying
Bullying in schools is a growing and serious problem that occurs on school campuses across the nation. Bullying not only comprises the overall learning goals of educational environments, it threatens a student’s right to attend classes on school campuses that are safe. Both state and federal governments have recognized a student’s need for school safety. Several states, including Indiana, have passed anti-bullying laws aimed at making schools safer for learning. In addition, the federal government has laws in place, such as the First Amendment, Establishment Clause, and others aimed at making sure school districts provide equal protection of federal and state constitutional rights to all citizens, including students. While parents of children who are bullied or harassed may file lawsuits against a school or school district for failing to stop the harmful behavior, students who bully are often suspended or expelled if a school determines his or her behavior violates student conduct codes and other laws. Schools can help minimize potential violations by enforcing codes of conduct that typically address various types of behavior.

2. Failure to Provide a Safe Environment
There are a growing number of lawsuits arising out of the failure of some school’s to keep students safe while on school property. Under the theory of “premises liability”, occupiers and owners of land (including schools) are legally required to keep premises safe for those who are allowed to be there. The law generally requires owners of land to exercise a “reasonable amount of care” in providing a safe environment. However, because schools are typically utilized by young children, the law requires a greater amount of care to be taken in situations where students are present. Parents of children who are injured may file a claim against a school or school district for contributing to a student’s harm or failing to keep premises safe at school. This may include common situations where a child falls or injures themselves in some way due to a school’s negligence, but may also include situations where a child is bullied, harassed, or becomes ill and the school fails to come to the aid of the student, or control the situation. There are strict time limits on the filing of such claims, so do not delay in consulting an attorney.

Schools also have an obligation to take reasonable steps to protect students once they know or should know that teachers, administrators, or other employees are acting in a way that is dangerous to students. Schools should have strict reporting requirements for employees or students that observe inappropriate conduct in order to allow the school to conduct an investigation. I just note that just because something bad happens to a student at school does not automatically mean the school is responsible. It is important to consult a lawyer on the distinction and to review what rights or remedies, if any, you may have.

3. Free Speech
The U.S. Supreme Court has declared that students attending public schools do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” See Tinker vs. Des Moines School Dist. 393 U.S. 503 (1969) (upholding the right of students to wear black armbands in school in protest of the Vietnam War). Even so, while students are afforded First Amendment freedoms, their rights may be restricted. There have been a variety of free speech lawsuits involving public schools over the years. The Court has ruled that certain types of speech, including the wearing of certain clothing and religious symbols (for example, t-shirts with suggestive language or a necklace with the symbol of a cross) and participation in groups or associations must be applied in a manner that attempts to balance a student’s free speech rights and a school’s need to provide a safe learning environment.

4. Codes of Conduct / Discipline
Most schools have some sort of student codes of conduct and other discipline policies which generally outline a student’s rights and responsibilities within the student body. These policies also typically include types of behavior that are acceptable or inappropriate on school campuses (or even beyond school doors). Parents (or guardians) should read through these policies with their child to ensure awareness of important safety and discipline guidelines.

School safety is an important issue. Not only is it important for students to feel safe and secure in their school surroundings, it is important for their learning growth as well. If you are a parent, guardian, or educator who has school safety concerns, you may wish to contact your school’s district and ask whether there are existing safety guidelines and policies in place. If you have questions about your child’s rights at school, of if you think those rights have been violated, contact an attorney to discuss your options.

Chris Jeter is a founding partner of Massillamany & Jeter LLP, a full-service law firm representing clients throughout the State of Indiana. For more information on this topic, please contact Mr. Jeter at (317) 225-6507 or by e-mail at: [email protected]

This article is not intended to serve as legal advice. Should you have questions about this topic, you should consult with a licensed lawyer.

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