Last Updated on March 18, 2021 by Michelle Ball
By Michelle Ball, California Education Attorney 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 with a new family in my office which has hit a barrier in communicating with their child’s school. Perhaps the administration has stopped responding to them or does not seem to take action on their complaints. Maybe they are unable to persuade staff that some issue exists.
Communication in the school setting can be unique. Yes there are straightforward school staffs who work with parents and life is good, but often this is not the case. Administrators are nervous about committing to anything, admitting anything, or making firm and final decisions. They also can be arrogant and treat parents like the children they supervise.
So, when parents communicate to school personnel in the way they talk to friends, family and “normal” people in life, they may get nowhere. This is because schools are unique entities. They are the government, first and foremost, and are not private businesses. This means they don’t always have the direct accountability an employee would, for example, in a retail establishment. Schools also are permeated by many hidden factors which influence them: long-established routines, personnel who have been around longer than some administrators, teacher tenure making it difficult to have even troublesome teachers removed, teacher’s unions, the California and United States Departments of Education which police (or don’t police) them, their Board of Education which is a group of citizens with varying education levels, the media, attorneys, and on and on. There is also often no clear “boss” or supervising entity overseeing the school district.
This has resulted in parents with complaints, needs and issues oftentimes being ignored, dismissed or minimized. Or, a parent may find THEY or their child improperly become a target after a complaint is lodged by them.
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? Sound familiar? Schools are often the same way. Politicians usually want you happy, want your vote, but don’t necessarily take action on your individual complaint.
Parents may also encounter the other type of politician: the one who completely dismisses their valid complaints as beneath the school official. This person may seem similar in attitude to a “king or queen,” who is unable to be challenged, and who views any parent, student or non-school employee as beneath them. Parents can actually feel like they are being treated like a child when approaching this person. Such encounters can send some parents back to being 8 years old and in the Principal’s office themselves. It is not the way we, as adults, are used to being addressed.
Whatever attitude you get, it can be completely frustrating.
Fortunately, assisting students as an attorney rather than as a parent, I don’t often have to deal with the things parents may face on a daily basis. However, I have heard enough to know how the schools tend to work when parents are on their own.
As such, here is an important lesson for parents to learn: WHEN DEALING WITH SCHOOLS YOU ARE IN A POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT. YOU MUST BE FRIENDLY BUT FIRM AND CAN ONLY DEFEAT THE POLITICIAN WITH FACTS, PROOF, EVIDENCE, AND PERHAPS A BIGGER STICK THEN THEIRS.
It is simple and is important. Be a parent in the school system; be a politician. Bet you did not know you had applied and been accepted for such a difficult job. As if raising kids were not hard enough!?
Education Attorney for Students
LAW OFFICE OF MICHELLE BALL
717 K Street, Suite 228
Sacramento, CA 95814
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Please see my disclaimer. This is legal information, not legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is formed by this posting. This blog may not be reproduced without permission from the author and proper attribution of authorship. This blog may not reflect the current state of the law.