Crisis Management: The Case of the Bickering Parents
By Lea Filippi of Sedor, Wendlandt, Evans & Filippi, LLC
Part two of a series on Interacting with the Outside World – School District Style.
Two siblings attend one of your schools. Their parents aren’t together and seem to share custody of the children. One afternoon, the father comes to school to pick up the older student, a teen, toward the end of the day shortly before the bell rings. When a staff member calls the classroom to get the teen, she indicates that she does not want to go with her father and wants to call her mother. The school secretary lets her call her mother from a phone in the front office. The mother asks her daughter to put a staff member on the phone. The principal takes the call. The mother tells the principal that there is an active OCS investigation and that neither child should go with their father. What should the school administrator do?
Although schools sometimes are the site of dramatic incidents that capture headlines, it’s much more frequently the case that school administrators have contact with drama and crises that occur in multiple aspects of the lives of students. A significant part of managing and responding to these types of crises is having consistent procedures, and a clear understanding of the rights of the various members of a family served by your school and how those are documented in your school’s record-keeping systems.
In Alaska, parental rights include the right to physical possession of a child, the right to discipline a child and inculcate the parent’s moral and ethical standards, and the right to manage the child’s earnings and property. When issuing an order, Alaska courts distinguish between legal custody and physical custody.
Legal custody is the responsibility for making major decisions affecting the child’s welfare, including educational decision making. Courts hearing custody disputes often award shared legal custody, so even parents who are not a couple are expected to communicate and cooperate to jointly make decisions in the child’s best interests. When there is evidence that parents cannot adequately communicate and cooperate, the court may award one parent sole legal custody, meaning exclusive authority to make major decisions involving a child’s welfare. The fact that a parent has been awarded sole legal custody does not eliminate the other parent’s rights to access their child’s educational records, and a parent who does not have legal custody may still have some physical custody.
Physical custody is the right to spend time with the child. Awards of shared physical custody are very common. Custody orders may include a schedule of specific times a child will spend with each parent. Physical custody orders sometimes schedule deviations from the regular routine for holidays or school breaks. Parents who share physical custody of a child can mutually agree to deviations from the court-ordered schedule, such as to facilitate travel plans, family events and so forth.
When paternity of a child has been acknowledged or legally established, marital status does not have any legal bearing on the parent’s legal rights. In the absence of a court order curtailing rights, both of the parents listed on a child’s birth certificate have equal parental rights. The parents of children who are not the subject of a custody order may orally communicate to a school regarding their informal arrangements — so the school is aware of their typical routines and where the children are likely to be — but the school should not treat either parent as having rights superior to the other in the absence of a court order. The school should permit each parent to come to school, participate in the child’s education, and exercise all rights that parents have with their children unless and until the school has been provided with a certified copy of a child custody order which clearly establishes that one parent is not allowed to have access to their child or is restricted or limited in some way in exercising parental rights.
The same applies to allegations from parents, or others, that an investigation by the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) is underway. If OCS moves past investigation to actually initiate Child In Need of Aid proceedings, any limitation on parental rights as a result of those proceedings would be memorialized in a written court order. The mere existence of an investigation does not in any way pare back a parent’s legal rights. When a child is actually in the custody of OCS, their social worker should provide information to the school regarding the child’s status.
Best practices for a school district include enrollment procedures that include the question of whether there is a custody order in effect. If a parent indicates that there is a custody order in effect, the school should ask for a certified copy and maintain that document with the student’s file. A custody order generally remains in effect until the child’s 18th birthday or until it is superseded or modified by a subsequent order. Orders that are only interim or temporarily will typically state as much. It is the responsibility of the parent to notify the school of any changes by providing a certified copy of any modification order. Your district should have a system for noting which children have certified copies of custody orders on file and maintain those files in a consistent manner so that a staff member knows where to look to check a custody order if an issue arises. Established procedures of this type should be the foundation for a school administrator responding to one parent’s assertion that the children shouldn’t leave school with the other.
In the case of the bickering parents, unless the school district has a certified copy of a court order limiting the father’s rights, the principal and other staff should neither press the student to leave with her father or prohibit her from doing so. The principal should be clear in any conversation with the mother that the school is not to limit the father’s access to the child in the absence of a court order.
Read the entire series on Interacting with the Outside World – School District Style
Part one: Panic is not a Plan: Crisis Communications for School Districts
More from Sedor, Wendlandt, Evans & Filippi, LLC:
Five-part series: Union Issues in Schools
Four-part series: Freedom of Expression in Schools
# # #
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.