The start of the school always brings competing demands from parents involved in ongoing custody disputes. Schools can get caught in the middle when parents bring those disputes into the school. Now is a good time to establish some ground rules with your parents that may help you avoid becoming part of the drama.
Get a Copy of the Complete Custody Order
Be certain that the parents have given you a copy of the entire custody order. Don’t just rely on one parent’s interpretation, or even a copy of part of the order. Definitely don’t just accept a letter from a parent’s attorney explaining the order. Get your own copy and, if you need a legal opinion, consult with your own attorney. Court orders usually have multiple parts, and one section may clarify or add more detail to an earlier section. You need to know all of the provisions, not just the ones that a particular parent likes the best. Many schools put this expectation for a copy of the full custody order in their enrollment agreements to set expectations early.
Understand the Terms of the Order
Be certain that you understand the terms of the custody order. For example, some parents may tell you that “tie-breaking” authority means that they can restrict what records the other parent can access. In most jurisdictions, that interpretation is not accurate. Consult with your local attorney to be sure that you understand what rights one parent has to restrict another parent’s access to their child or school records.
Be Clear That You Won’t Voluntarily Take Sides
Have a written statement in your parent handbook, enrollment agreement, or other important documents that your staff will not voluntarily speak to a parent’s lawyer or serve as a witness in court proceedings. Of course, if you receive a subpoena for records or testimony, you will have to respond or hire a lawyer to object. Similarly, a court-appointed guardian ad litem is not a partisan, and usually has a court order telling you to provide information. Short of that sort of compulsion, however, your staff should avoid any actions that could be interpreted as favoring one parent over another.
This neutrality should extend to all aspects of your program. Some provisions that you might want to explain in your parent orientation materials include:
- The school will not restrict access to a child or a child's records absent a clear custody order to the contrary.
- The school will not notify one parent whenever the other parent asks for information or contacts the school.
- The school will work with both parents equally and will not become the mediator for any parental disagreements.
- The school will apply its rules equally to both parents. For example, we've seen situations where custodial parents checked children out of school early to prevent the other parents' picking the children up at school on visitation weekends. In such cases, the school needs to follow its normal procedure, such as allowing the parent to check the child out of school, but imposing the usual consequences for missed classes. This situation also could be subject to a cooperation clause explained below.
Be Clear that You Expect Parents to Cooperate With Your Program and Each Other
Establish early in the relationship that you expect both parents to cooperate with each other and with the school regarding their child's education. Some programs put specific clauses in their enrollment agreements or parent handbooks stating that if parents don't cooperate with the school, then the school can impose penalties up to disenrolling their child.
Also consider a statement that if the parents cannot agree on a particular education or school question, then they must seek a clarifying court order. For example, many schools allow parents to eat lunch with their children. Many court orders don't address that issue, but may give a custodial parent the right to make "educational decisions." Can that parent exercise that right to prevent a non-custodial parent from eating lunch at the school? In such situations, you will need to be able to tell an objecting parent that the school's policy is whatever it is, and that their agreement with the school requires the parent to get a clarifying court order in order to impose a different policy.
Parents seem to be able to find an endless number of creative ways to fight over their children. It's impossible to predict and avoid every parental dispute. But establishing these ground rules early in the school year can help you minimize the disruption to your educational process.