New teachers should be familiar with educational policies and laws related to their role as educators. Understanding and abiding by policies and laws not only protects the teacher, but also in many cases helps to protect students, administrators, and the school district from possible harm. It is important to understand the hierarchy that exists specific to laws, regulations, and policies related to education. Teachers are required to follow all board policies. Therefore, new educators should take time to review the school district policies, as each board of education has the power to develop the policies for their local district.
Educational Policy and Law Hierarchy
Legal Issues for New Educators
As educators, teachers have many legal obligations to ensure that they are providing a safe and effective learning environment for their students. In this section, we will review some of the most important legal issues that new teachers should be aware of.
Teachers have a duty to protect the privacy of their students. According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), teachers must obtain consent from parents or guardians before disclosing any personally identifiable information about students (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). Teachers should also be aware of their school or district's policies related to the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information.
In addition to federal privacy laws, many states have enacted their own laws related to student data privacy. For example, the Kansas Student Data Privacy Act (KSDPA) sets forth requirements for the collection, use, and storage of student data by educational institutions in the state of Kansas. The KSDPA requires that educational institutions have written policies related to student data privacy, obtain written consent from parents or guardians before disclosing certain types of student data, and implement security measures to protect student data (Kansas Legislature, n.d.). Teachers should note that the KSDPA applies to surveys administered to students by school district employees.
Teachers are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse or neglect. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, all states have laws requiring certain professionals, including teachers, to report suspected abuse or neglect (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016). Teachers should be aware of their legal obligations to report suspected abuse or neglect and follow the procedures outlined by their school or district. If a teacher witnesses the suspected abuse or neglect, simply reporting to an administrator is not sufficient. The teacher must ensure the report is made by calling the hotline and reporting what they observed themselves.
Freedom of Speech
While teachers have a First Amendment right to freedom of speech, this right may be limited in certain situations. Teachers' speech is protected when it addresses matters of public concern and is not disruptive to the educational environment. However, teachers' speech may be limited when it interferes with their job responsibilities or with the educational mission of the school (First Amendment Encyclopedia, n.d.).
Search and Seizure
While in most cases administrators or school resource officers will handle student searches, it is important for new educators to understand that students have the right to privacy in their personal property, such as their phones or electronic devices. In general, school officials are not allowed to search a student's electronic device without a warrant or probable cause. However, schools may have policies that allow them to search a student's device in certain situations, such as when there is a suspicion of cyberbullying or other inappropriate behavior (Kids Legal, n.d.).
As educators, it's essential to understand copyright law and how it applies to the materials used in the classroom. Copyright protects the creators of original works, such as books, videos, and images, from unauthorized use, reproduction, and distribution (Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center, n.d.).
New teachers should be aware that the Fair Use Doctrine allows for the limited use of copyrighted materials in certain circumstances, such as for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. The four factors of fair use are the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work (U.S. Copyright Office, n.d.).
It's important for new teachers to use materials that are either in the public domain or have been licensed for educational use. Public domain materials include works that are no longer protected by copyright or that have been released by the copyright owner into the public domain. Some educational materials are licensed through Creative Commons, which allows for the free use and distribution of the work under certain conditions (Creative Commons, n.d.).
Teachers have a duty of care towards their students and may be held liable if they breach this duty. According to the NEA, potential sources of liability for teachers include negligence, breach of confidentiality, and breach of duty of care. To avoid liability, teachers should ensure that they are providing a safe learning environment and following proper procedures for reporting suspected child abuse or neglect. (Edvocate, n.d.)
One good website for new teachers to consult regarding legal issues is the website of the National Education Association (NEA). The NEA provides resources and information on a wide range of legal issues that teachers may encounter, including classroom management, student privacy, and employment contracts. Additionally, the NEA offers legal assistance to its members on a variety of issues, including employment disputes and certification/licensure concerns. The NEA provides a resource library with legal and employment guidance.