Last Updated on April 7, 2021 by Michelle Ball
By Michelle Ball, California Education Attorney for Students since 1995
Most parents see schools as places where their kids go daily, while they are at work or taking care of other household needs, and forget about them. College students may view their universities as a large mass of buildings and detached college staff and instructors. Students and parents may be shocked and confused when a problem arises at a school or college and may not know what to do.
THE BASICS OF APPROACHING A SCHOOL OR COLLEGE PROBLEM
There are some fundamental recommendations I have when it comes to dealing with schools and getting desired outcomes for students. These should generally apply to many issues that come up, from school discipline, expulsion, and suspensions, to special education, IEP (Individualized Education Program) or 504 matters, college hearings, sports eligibility, student targeting by teachers or professors, grade appeals, and many other matters being encountered by students in day to day life.
1) Know the rules: When you run into a problem in a school or college, find the rules which apply to the situation. These may be found in the school handbook, on the website, in program handbooks (e.g. a “Handbook for the Nursing Program”), and in many other places. Boards of education also issue policies which are online, usually under the “Board” section of a school district website. For the UC Regents, there are rules that apply to all UCs found usually on the relevant Regents page, or on the specific college website. Find any and all policies and rules related to the student issue. Read them, clear up any misunderstood words or concepts in the policies/rules and truly understand them.
2) Gather Information Specific To The Student: One of the first things I do in matters is to request student records. For students pre-college, parents can submit a request for the student’s files and all evidence that may relate to any pending matter. For college students, a similar request may be filed. Timelines are usually 5 business days for public schools (before college), and maximum 45 days under FERPA (Family Education Rights And Privacy Act). Some colleges bind themselves to shorter time periods for production which can be discovered when researching relevant school policies. For private entities, if they take federal funds, they usually are bound to federal laws on production.
3) Write A Timeline: Another important component to really understanding a matter and later communicating with a school or college about it is a timeline. Does the student really know what happened when, and who was involved? Get it on paper so it is clear.
4) Gather Support: Does the student have documents that relate to the matter at hand, or texts, or pictures, etc.? All documents should be gathered together and connected to the timeline. If evidence may be online, printing it out and downloading a copy can be very worthwhile as I have seen schools change websites and remove documents after they found out they were at issue. If a screenshot or copy of critical evidence was not downloaded or printed, the proof can vanish.
If you have witnesses, depending on the situation, they can potentially be contacted.
CAUTION: There are times, particularly in discipline matters, when an accused student should not contact potential witnesses as this could be misinterpreted as witness intimidation, so be cautious in contacting potential witnesses. Minor witnesses should only be contacted through their parents, if at all.
5) Put Appropriate Things In Writing: It is easy to cold call a school official and blab about a matter, and that may be necessary, but it is also important to put a competent communication together in writing which outlines the situation and the student’s position. This is an important component to ensuring that points are
not just forgotten, such as on a phone call where no one takes notes. What is the truth about the situation, what do the school or college’s own rules say about it, and what data supports the thing being sought? It can be a double-edged sword, however, as putting things in writing can be negative if letters are full of threats or wild allegations and can cause problems. As such, it is key to write the letter objectively and factually, and to remove as much emotion as possible. If the author cannot write it in an effective way, they may need to get help from someone they trust to ghost write it.
CAUTION: If an accused student puts things in writing, whatever is written could be seen as a form of “admission,” so accused students need to be hyper-cautious lest any documents be pulled out and used against them as testimony
6) Make Personal Contact With School Officials: This can be necessary if a student wants to achieve their goal and it cannot be achieved via written communication alone. Again, an accused student, such as in a suspension or expulsion matter, will want to carefully consider how this is approached so it does not harm their matter. It will depend on the situation. Many times meeting with one school official, then maybe another, will be necessary to try to achieve a goal.
7) Filings: Is there an official process if personal contact does not work? If so, it should be considered. There may also be an outside agency which could be contacted to file something (sometimes students have only one option- the outside agency or the school). Students need to determine the internal and external processes available and their likelihood of success in either one.
8) Rally Support: Some students or parents think getting a bunch of protestors outside a school can help, or getting on the news will somehow intimidate the school or college. I do not turn to the media for leverage, as I find that they usually have their story already written before they talk to me- and who knows if that will go against my client’s position or not? Once media is allowed in, sometimes the lines can get blurry on what can be printed/not printed online or otherwise.
As far as a group of supporters: groups can be effective if they are a cohesive group of students or parents with strong positions individually (for example, they or their child were also wronged).
9) Be Smart: With any school issue, be it appealing a grade, or opposing an expulsion, it is important to be professional and act intelligently. School administrators judge us on how we act, so students and parents should be thorough, well versed and professional in all communications, and keep emotion to a minimum. Help school administrators focus on the facts by keeping it clear, concise, by presenting documented support and communicating in a way they can accept.
10) Know Your Audience: Realize who you are talking to, bureaucrats and people generally unmotivated personally by any threatened loss. It is not usually the school administrator’s house at risk if a student is wronged. School and college officials are
not like other retail establishments who care about their clientele returning. There is a high demand for their services and with public schools, students are often stuck in their school of residence. As such, although administrators may not want issues, they have less motivation to resolve them than the average grocery store, as they have so much power over students. This sometimes results in administrators talking down to students or parents. Triumph over this by thoroughly knowing your position and any leverage you may have.
11) Be Persuasive: Persuasion is key, and this may be seen in communications that outline the situation in a way that leads the reader (e.g. school administrator) to the student’s side. Persuasive writing is somewhat of an art, but essentially if an administrator can imagine themselves as the student and get into that viewpoint, they may move toward helping that student if possible. Effective communication and persuasion are critical.
12) Present Solutions That Meet Both Sides Needs: To reach a resolution, it is important that whatever outcome a student or parent requests, it is made “easy” for the school to provide that outcome. For example, you are not asking for them to buy a $200,000 schoolbus to get your kid home, but are only asking for a daily taxi ride, due to issues with the special education bus. What could you and they both accept which solves the problem? Be creative and communicate ideas which both sides could be happy with in the end, and which are possible. Many parents don’t even have an idea of what they want or don’t tell the school what will satisfy them, so it is a step-up for a parent or student to tell the school or college staff their goals so they can try to reach them collaboratively.
Almost any school matter can be approached with these steps which can effectively educate the student, parent, and school, and help students win their disputes by reaching resolutions that work in the school or college setting.
Education Attorney for Students
LAW OFFICE OF MICHELLE BALL
717 K Street, Suite 228
Sacramento, CA 95814
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.