Last Updated on July 27, 2022 by Michelle Ball
By Michelle Ball, Sacramento California Expulsion, Special Education, sports/CIF, College, Education and School Attorney/Lawyer for Students since 1995
Communication is such an important factor in life and can be the reason endeavors succeed or fail. It is no less important in the school setting. However, time and again I find myself speaking with parents who have hit a barrier in communicating with a student’s school.
Perhaps the school administration has stopped responding to parents on student issues, or does not take effective action on student complaints. Maybe the parents are unable to persuade school staff that student issues exist at all. This school breakdown happens due to inadequate or ineffective communication with the student’s school.
School Communication is DIFFERENT
Communicating in the school setting is different. How school staff are addressed can be VERY unique, whether it is about a pending student expulsion or suspension, special education, a transfer or other student issue. Yes, there are straightforward school staff who work with parents and life is good, but often this is not the case.
School administrators are sometimes nervous about committing to anything, admitting anything, or making firm and final decisions about students. School staff can also be arrogant and treat parents like they are the children they supervise.
So, when parents communicate to school personnel the same way they talk to friends, family and “normal” people in life, they may get nowhere. Schools are unique entities. They are the government, first and foremost, and are not private businesses. Ultimately, the staff have no issue if a student attends and is happy or not.
School staff do not have direct accountability a typical employee would, for example, in a retail establishment. As such, their jobs are usually not on the line for ineffective or rude communication. Because of these factors, school staff just may not care.
Schools Have Hidden Factors Influencing Staff
Schools also are permeated by many hidden factors which influence them: long-established routines, untouchable staff who have been around longer than some administrators, unwritten practices and procedures not known to the public, teacher tenure making it difficult to have even troublesome teachers removed, teacher’s unions, lack of adequate supervision, dealing with their Board of Education and the fear they will let a school shooter go unhindered. There is also no clear “boss” or supervising entity overseeing the school district and no one holding them truly accountable.
This has resulted in parents with student complaints, needs and issues oftentimes being ignored, dismissed or minimized. Or, a parent may find THEY or the student improperly become a target after a student complaint is lodged (e.g. retaliation).
Parents ARE Dealing with Politicians When Dealing With Schools
It can be extremely frustrating. As such, I frequently find myself telling parents that they need to “act like politicians” when dealing with the school; that when they enter the school environment, they have entered the political sphere.
What? This is school, not politics! Not so.
Have you ever met with a senator or city council member and come away from the meeting not knowing what was said or what was agreed to? Feeling you were heard and feeling better, but later realizing you don’t know the result of your communication or what will be done?
Schools are often the same way. Politicians usually want you happy, want your vote, but don’t necessarily take action on your individual complaint. Same with school staff. They may listen and smile and reassure you, but may not take action on a student’s or parent’s problems.
The School King or Queen
Parents may also encounter another type of school politician: the one who completely dismisses valid parent or student complaints as beneath the school official. This school staff member may seem similar in attitude to a “king or queen,” who is unable to be challenged, and who views any parent or student as beneath them.
Parents can actually feel like they are being treated like a child when approaching this type of school staff member with a student problem. It is not the way we, as adults, are used to being addressed by other adults. It can be completely frustrating.
To address this, parents just have to become skilled in acting like school politicians themselves. Smile, be friendly, get agreement, all while having a plan to win over the other party.
If parents remember who they are dealing with at schools, this can be an easier goal to achieve.
So, How DO Parents Communicate With Schools
It is all well and good to know the quirks of school staff, but how DO parents communicate with these school staff to be effective? Unfortunately, there really is no black and white answer, but here are some tips:
- Know your enemy (see above).
- Be friendly. It is not good to rage or yell at school staff even if they are wrong.
- Put things in writing and keep evidence. Document bullying incidents on the bullying complaint form, send email outlining issues, communicate in a format which is more permanent and provable.
- Use the law.
- Know the systems- know the procedures for doing things- the grade appeal process, the records correction process, the personnel complaint form, the discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, etc. Know the paths you may take.
- Act like school people are important. This is the politics of it- we can play the game- act like school staff are super important and super helpful, while documenting, using law, setting up the game plan to get things to happen.
- Get educated.
- Go above their heads. If being nice and documenting is not enough, go above the school’s heads to the district or any other entity who may have authority and control over them.
- Be firm, while being friendly.
- Do something (legal and within proper channels of course)! The first rule in all of this is do something about wrongs. Year after year I hear from parents who, had other parents before them taken action, might not have suffered.
All items above are important, but being friendly while being firm plus documenting things are critical.
Too many parents learn later that that conversation they had with the Principal was disavowed later by the Principal who conveniently forgot about it. Had a parent emailed after the talk to document the discussion, maybe the student matter would be moving along.
If not, heck, well, the talk never happened at all!
Michelle Ball is a student lawyer assisting California parents and students with resolving school issues and complaints, effectively communicating with schools, resolving suspensions, expulsions and other matters. As a college, elementary, junior and high school attorney, Michelle may advocate across California in Roseville, Auburn, Foresthill, Meadow Vista, Elk Grove, Laguna, Stockton, Lodi, Rio Vista, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno and many others.