Spring is here, which means it’s time for independent schools to consider updating their employee and parent-teacher handbooks for the 2022-2023 school year. Given that many schools have seen an upsurge in student conduct, mental health, and behavioral issues as the pandemic has spread, schools would be wise to pay close attention to their harassment policies, mental health and conduct policies to ensure they comply with current school practices, and with all applicable federal, state, and local laws. Below are some key questions independent schools should consider when revising their textbooks.
Mental Health: After several years of uncertainty, remote learning and limited ability to socialize normally due to the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with global unrest, schools are noticing an increasing number of mental health issues and behavioral issues in students. When behavioral or academic issues arise, it is important to understand whether mental health may be a contributing factor. If so, independent schools may want to require the student to be assessed and/or may want to collaborate and share information with external providers. Accordingly, independent schools may consider including language in their textbooks authorizing the school to speak with a student’s health care providers if necessary and obtain information regarding student mental health. Such wording should emphasize the importance of the parent-school partnership and set clear expectations for collaboration and cooperation between parents. Schools may wish to establish an expectation of confidentiality regarding student health information, ensuring that parents understand that this information can be shared with those who need to know.
Along with this policy, schools should also have parental consent forms on hand to obtain permission from school counselors and other appropriate staff to communicate with a student’s outside health care providers and obtain medical records, treatment plans and other information.
Additionally, independent schools would be wise to outline the role and duties of the school counselor and, specifically, should address the types of information the school counselor can keep confidential and what they cannot. Having a clear policy on the role of the school counselor will avoid misunderstandings between everyone involved.
Conduct of Parents: Independent schools have long understood the importance of parental cooperation in facilitating and supporting the school’s mission, goals, and program. Most schools already require parents to acknowledge their obligation to cooperate with the school when they sign their child’s annual enrollment agreement. Over the past two years, however, parents have expressed their dissatisfaction more than ever with issues such as COVID-19 vaccination mandates, masking policies, and initiatives for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. Therefore, independent schools may consider establishing a written policy – in addition to any contractual language – in their parent/student handbooks setting out expectations for parent engagement with the school. Such a policy should clearly state what the school considers acceptable conduct for parents and the consequences of conduct that does not meet the school’s expectations. It would be a good idea to also include guidelines for parents’ use of electronic communications, such as the school yearbook and social media. Any online conduct or email communication is also subject to this policy.
Allegations of Student Sexual Misconduct: Addressing sexual misconduct among students continues to present challenges for independent schools. Although Title IX imposes a clear legal obligation on schools that receive federal financial assistance to investigate such allegations, most independent schools that were previously covered by Title IX by accepting Check Protection Program loans from payroll (PPP) have had these loans canceled and the resulting legal obligations removed. .
Schools would be advised to review their existing student sexual misconduct policies to determine if and when the policy is triggered. For example, does the policy require the school to investigate allegations of inappropriate conduct that may have occurred between off-campus students? Does the policy require the school to investigate allegations of inappropriate conduct occurring in the context of a teenage relationship? Schools may want to determine when the school should intervene in such circumstances and ensure that their policies reflect the school’s position. Some factors to consider include whether applicable state law imposes a legal duty of care to intervene and whether the school currently regulates off-campus misconduct.
Special Note on Title IX: As noted above, independent schools whose PPP loans have been repaid or canceled are no longer required to comply with federal non-discrimination obligations, including Title IX. Schools that have previously adopted Title IX policies after accepting a PPP loan must confirm that the loan has been canceled and must ensure that text in their textbooks that addresses these federal non-discrimination obligations, in particular Title IX policies, has been removed.
Federal, State, and Local Law Updates: Finally, any updates to the manual should include a careful review of federal, state, and local laws that may now be applicable or that have changed. For example, a number of jurisdictions have passed updates to their paid sick leave and paid family leave laws; minimum wage, medical and recreational marijuana laws; and other employee policies.
Likewise, most states have relaxed or updated their COVID-19 health and safety requirements, including the repeal of mask mandates and furlough laws. It is important to understand whether state or local law continues to require schools to provide paid time off for COVID-19-related reasons, and whether, in the absence of a positive legal obligation, a school will continue to do so. make.