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The More You Know: Employee and Student/Family Handbooks

By Net Assets posted 25 days ago

  
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Risk Management |

Employees and families increasingly use school handbook language to pursue legal claims against schools.

From the July/August 2018 Net Assets magazine

The following is an excerpt of the article "The More You Know," which covers nine additional topics (see box below). 

    This information is provided for general educational purposes only. It should not be relied upon as, or in place of, legal advice. The authors and reader do not have an attorney/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to work with their legal counsel when addressing specific issues.

    By Megan Mann and Janice Gregerson, Venable

    We’ve noticed that handbooks are getting a great deal of attention recently. This frequently stems from a school recognizing that its policies are outdated and no longer conform with its actual practices, the law and best practice. The more independent schools end up on the wrong end of litigation, the more they realize that a good handbook is an asset and an outdated one is a liability. We’ve also seen employees and families relying on handbook language to pursue legal claims against schools. What’s more — some courts are letting them.

    What does this mean for independent schools? Evaluate your handbooks. Make sure they’re not simply copied from another school (or, worse, a noneducational entity) or forgotten entirely, thereby ensuring they will not comport with law or best practice. Once you’ve turned to these documents, work with an outside professional to really focus on the language choices, and work with your internal team to ensure that you are promulgating policies that reflect sustainable school practices.

    As our schools have focused on handbooks generally over the past year, certain policies have risen to the top of their lists. Similarly, certain policies have become the subject of attention from school communities as well as the law. Generally speaking, your school does itself a great disservice if you have policies that are inconsistent, inconsistent with practice or applied differently to different individuals.

    On the employee handbook front, there has been a lot of attention on the compatibility between employment agreements and handbook policies, specifically those concerning termination of employment. Further, many schools have revamped policies around employee-student boundaries, mandatory reporting, social media and technology use. Policies concerning leaves of absence have also been a focal point, especially given the evolution of local leave laws and best practices.

    On the student and family handbook front, schools have focused a great deal of energy on discipline policies. Several of our schools revamped theirs after parents challenged a student’s discipline or dismissal. Schools have also grappled with related concepts and policies, such as language regarding acceptable use of technology, “consent” in the context of student sexual conduct, and reporting to colleges and universities. We encourage schools to think about the best way to communicate expectations and consequences (easier said than done). Your language should reflect actual practices, be sustainable and defendable, and work within the school’s culture.

    Megan Mann and Janice P. Gregerson are based in Washington, D.C. with Venable.

    Download a PDF of this article.

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