Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter
Dear Legal Mailbag:
The end of the current school year cannot come soon enough. As the principal of an elementary school, I speak for my entire staff when I say that we are all exhausted and crabby and need some time off.
Apparently, that goes for parents as well. A fourth-grade teacher in my school sent a letter to each of her students for the fall, welcoming them to her class and providing them a summer reading list. It was nice for her to take the time to address and send a personal letter to each of her students. It seems, however, that no good deed goes unpunished.
In relevant part, the teacher’s letter to her students states, “The summer is a time for vacation, exercise and relaxation. It is also a time for reading. When we start school in the fall, I hope and expect that you will have read the following books . . . .” The teacher then listed four age-appropriate books.
The teacher stopped by my office yesterday after school to share an email that she received from one of the parents of a student in her incoming class. The parent’s email was vulgar and rude, starting with the first sentence: “Who the &*^% do you think you are assigning homework to my son over the summer?” The parent then rudely complained that “only an idiot” would think it appropriate to intrude on a student’s summer vacation, which in the parent’s view should be exclusively “family time.”
The teacher is understandably upset, and she is wondering if she overstepped by assigning summer reading. The teacher wants to know whether and how she should respond to this parent. Does Legal Mailbag have any suggestions?
The teacher’s actions and the parent’s response raise two issues, neither of which is strictly legal. Starting with the teacher’s actions, the teacher has every right to suggest enrichment activities during the summer, including summer reading. The teacher’s role is not limited to the school year, and students who do the suggested reading over the summer will be better prepared for the new school year.
Legal Mailbag has heard from time to time about parent complaints that assigning summer reading is somehow ultra vires (a fancy legal word for “beyond the authority of school officials”). That is not the case. The authority to provide for the education of children is not limited to specific days on the calendar, and some assignments perforce require work outside the school day: during evenings, on weekends, holidays, and school breaks. Any such assignments should be reasonable, of course, and no teacher wants to burden students. However, as a legal matter, teachers have the right to make assignments to promote student learning outside the school day and school year.
Just as the number and scope of any summer assignments should be reasonable, so too should be the teacher’s response if and when students do not complete such summer assignments. It is an imperfect world, and students do not always do the summer reading. As a general matter, students can be held accountable when they do not complete assignments. When that happens with summer reading, however, the teacher should not be punitive, and it is generally best to consider such assignments as enrichment activities.
The content and tone of the parent’s email raise a separate question. Teachers should not be abused, and teachers and administrators may require that communications from parents be respectful or at least neutral. In this case, Legal Mailbag suggests that the teacher acknowledge the email and explain that she is referring the parent’s concern to you, the principal. Legal Mailbag further suggests that you reach out to the parent in the first instance by telephone to share politely with the parent your expectation that communications between parents and teachers be respectful on both sides. That conversation may or may not go well. In either case, you will want then to follow up with an email to the parent that (1) explains that summer reading assignments are appropriate, and that (2) documents your expectation that future communications will be respectful.
Sometimes such communications work, and sometimes they do not, and how best to proceed once you have shared your expectations for civil interactions will depend on the facts and circumstances. In extreme cases, a principal may insist that communications from a troublesome parent go through the principal and that the teacher will not be responding directly. However, Legal Mailbag will indulge here in the optimistic hope that the parent was just having a bad day herself and that your response back to the parent will get communications between that parent and the teacher back on track.
Is it summer yet?