As this school year wraps up, administrators should begin reviewing and revising student handbooks for the 2019-2020 school year. A comprehensive and well-written student handbook is an important tool to ensure compliance with state and federal law, uphold student discipline decisions, and defend against litigation and other disputes.
One of the most common student handbook mistakes 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 inconsistency between the handbook and board policy could undermine a school’s decisions and expose it to liability.
School officials often use student handbook provisions as a basis for issuing student discipline. Handbook provisions addressing student discipline must comply with state law, including the Revised School Code, as well as board policy. School officials should ensure that the handbook’s student discipline provisions are current and comply with Revised School Code Section 1310d. As a reminder, Section 1310d, among other things, requires school officials to consider seven factors before suspending or expelling a student under Sections 1310, 1311(1), 1311(2), or 1311a (except for students in possession of a firearm in a weapon free school zone). An in-depth analysis of those statutory provisions was reported in our January 2017 School Law Notes.
Athletic Code of Conduct
Student athletes are subject to both the student code of conduct and the athletic code of conduct. A student handbook should describe appropriate behavior and rules specifically for students who participate in athletics and what disciplinary consequences may be imposed for violating those rules.
School officials must ensure that the student handbook is implemented consistently for all students. The Office for Civil Rights has previously expressed concerns that minority students and students with disabilities are disciplined more frequently and more severely than their peers. Adhering to disciplinary procedures in accordance with the handbook and board policy for every student offense will assist schools in defending against allegations that disciplinary decisions are discriminatory.
Handbooks should include: (1) a comprehensive statement prohibiting discrimination (including unlawful harassment); (2) a summary of the investigation process; and (3) the identity of the person or position that receives discrimination complaints. Failure to do so could result in possible liability, even if the school takes appropriate action in response to a discrimination complaint. We recommend reviewing board policy and student handbooks to ensure nondiscrimination provisions are included in both.
Disclosure of Student Records
Both FERPA and the Revised School Code govern the disclosure of personally identifiable information in student records. Schools can notify parents and eligible students about their student record rights in the student handbook.
The U.S. Department of Education’s model FERPA notice is insufficient for Michigan schools because it does not include the additional notice requirements required by Revised School Code Section 1136. Schools officials should ensure their annual FERPA notice is updated to comply with Section 1136 and includes a “list of uses” for which the school commonly discloses directory information. Schools also must develop an “opt-out” form that allows parents to choose whether their child’s directory information may be disclosed for one or more of those uses. Including this notice and “opt-out” form with the student handbook is one way to satisfy a school’s requirement to present the form to parents within the first 30 days of the school year.
School officials also should post the student handbook to the school’s website and include a copy of the student handbook in student agendas or planners with a letter to parents. Each student and the student’s parent or guardian should be required to sign and return to the school an acknowledgement that the student has read, understands, and agrees to comply with the handbook. Wide dissemination of the student handbook will help ensure that students and parents are on notice of prohibited conduct and the consequences for engaging in such conduct.
A well-drafted student handbook is an important tool in maintaining decorum in school and can be invaluable in defending against legal claims and OCR complaints, but only if it is current, consistently implemented, and widely disseminated.