Ruling lifts parents’ civil right to visit schools

Ruling lifts parents’ civil right to visit schools

(Calif.) Efforts by school district officials to restrict parental access to their child’s classroom after a disagreement over educational services could have violated the parent’s civil rights, a federal judge ruled late last week, allowing a key case to move forward.

Attorneys representing a fourth grader at the Gustine Unified School District said that while the ruling was not on the merits of the suit, it represents a rare win in a complex area of the law.

“California law acknowledges the importance of parental involvement in children’s education,” said Thomas A. Saenz, president of general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents the family.

“This court ruling recognizes that such involvement cannot be unfairly or arbitrarily denied to any parent,” he said in a statement.

At issue is the limits a school district has to restrict a parent from coming on to school grounds to consult, observe or even confront educators over the services provided to their child.

Unlike many other public spaces—such as a park or street sidewalk—a public school is not considered a “public forum” under the law, and provides discretion to a school principal to regulate disruptive conduct.

But in a suit filed last fall, MALDEF attorneys alleged that Gustine school officials improperly banned the fourth grader’s mother from school ground after falsely accusing her of harassing teachers. The actions, the suit said, violated the mother’s civil rights protections under the 1st and 14th Amendments.

School attorneys said that because the mother disrupted school operations, there was no constitutional protections.

Without deciding which side was right, U.S. District Court Judge Anthony W. Ishii found that the plaintiffs had met a standard of proof to allow the case to move to trial.

He further noted that by issuing an “indefinite ban” on the mother visiting the school, the district appeared to also violate California law which requires a hearing before such actions can be taken.

“An indefinite ban from school campus is not a reasonable restriction on speech,” the judge concluded. “And instituting such a ban without a hearing implicates procedural due process concerns.”

Although incremental, the ruling helps clarify the rights of parents to engage with school officials without fear of retaliation, a MALDEF spokesman said.

The dispute began with a seemingly routine request by parents to move their child to another classroom because of concerns over how the student was being treated by the teacher. The parents met with school officials and although the administrators declined to move the child, they invited the parents to visit the class for observation.

Still not satisfied, the parents sought additional meetings with the school principal and district managers including the superintendent. At some point, the principal became frustrated and issued orders to bar the mother from coming on school grounds.

The school resource officer told the mother that he had authority to ban her from the campus. He alleged that the mother had screamed at and harassed two teachers and that he would arrest her if she ever returned to the school.

Although argued in federal court, the key to the case rested on a California law that established a “property” or “liberty” protected by federal civil rights guarantees. Thus, while California law “creates a protected interest in parent’s visitation to school, another state might not establish such a right; if so, that state would not trigger a due process guarantee,” said Saenz.

The suit named the school principal, the district superintendent and the school resource officer.

Attorneys for the district had argued that the nature of the conduct by the parents “willfully disrupted the orderly operation” of the school and thus the principal had the right to evict them.

The parents have since transferred their son to another school at another school district.

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