Ready for the 2022-23 School Year? Time to Review Student Handbooks!

As this school year wraps up, school officials should begin reviewing and revising student handbooks for the 2022-23 school year. A comprehensive and well-written student handbook is an important tool to ensure compliance with state and federal law, support student discipline decisions, and reduce the risk of litigation and other disputes.

Disclaimer Language

School officials should consider including language at the beginning of the student handbook advising that the handbook is not intended to be all-encompassing, that it does not create a contract between the school and parents or students, and that school officials may revise the handbook to implement the education program and ensure student wellbeing. Additionally, the disclaimer language should indicate that school officials are responsible for interpreting the handbook and, if a situation is not specifically addressed, the school will make decisions based upon staff discretion, applicable board policies, and state and federal statutes and regulations, consistent with the school’s best interests.

Board Policy

A common mistake is failing to align handbook provisions with board policy (and corresponding rules or guidelines), which creates conflicting guidance for students and parents. While board policy is typically broader than handbook language, board policy ultimately controls. Any conflict or inconsistency between the handbook and board policy could undermine a school’s decisions and expose it to liability.

Student Discipline

State law requires every school to develop and implement a student code of conduct. Schools often include the student code of conduct in student handbooks. All handbook provisions addressing student discipline, including the code of conduct, must comply with the Constitution, state law, and board policy.

Consistent Implementation

School officials must ensure consistent implemen­tation of the handbook for all students. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has expressed concerns that minority students and students with disabilities are disciplined more frequently and more severely than their peers for the same conduct. Adhering to all established disciplinary procedures for every student offense will help schools ensure consistency and defend against allegations of discriminatory decisions.

Non-Discrimination Provisions

Handbooks should include: (1) a comprehensive statement prohibiting discrimination (including unlawful harassment); (2) a summary of the applicable investigation process; and (3) the identity of the person or position that receives discrimination complaints. Failure to include these provisions could result in liability, even if the school takes appropriate action in responding to a discrimination complaint. We recommend reviewing both board policy and student handbooks to ensure that appropriate nondiscrimina­tion provisions are included.

Before August 2020, many non-discrimination policies included reference to Title IX sexual harass­ment. Now, Title IX sexual harassment requires a separate grievance process, typically defined in a separate board policy. School officials should ensure that the student handbook accurately reflects the specific Title IX policy and grievance process. The Title IX Coordinator’s contact information should also be included in the handbook.

Other Considerations

School officials should post the student handbook to the school’s website and include a copy of the student handbook in student agendas or planners (if provided), with a letter to parents. Each student and the student’s parent or guardian should be required to sign and return an acknowledgement that the student has read, understands, and agrees to comply with the handbook. Wide dissemination of the student handbook helps ensure that students and parents are on notice of prohibited conduct and the consequences for engaging in such conduct. School officials should also develop protocols to ensure that students who transfer into the school during the school year receive the student handbook.

A well-drafted student handbook is an important tool for school management and can be invaluable in defending against legal claims and OCR complaints, but only if the student handbook is consistent with applicable law and board policy, up-to-date, consist­ently implemented, and widely disseminated.

Thrun attorneys are available to review student handbooks to ensure compliance with law and board policy. Contact a Thrun attorney if you are interested in a handbook review.