Many parents with children in special education say they have problems with school administrators who refuse to allow them to observe their child's classroom or a proposed placement because of the confidentiality rights of the other children with special needs. By taking this position, administrators create an atmosphere of secrecy and mistrust, so say special education experts Pam Wright and her husband attorney Pete Wright in their essay on the subject.
Teachers sometimes tape paper over classroom windows to protect student privacy. Parents report that they are not allowed on field trips or to attend school events because this would violate the privacy rights of other students.
The only relevant federal law that deals with confidentiality is the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA regulates tangible educational records and nothing else. FERPA would generally prohibit a teacher from disclosing information from a child's education records to other students in the classroom ... [and] prohibit a teacher from disclosing information from a child's education records to the parents of another child who might be observing the classroom.
Courts have held that children in school have very few privacy rights. Children in special education do not have greater privacy rights than nondisabled children. The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Oswasso v. Falvo reaffirmed that school children have no expectation of privacy during the school day. In a 1995 case, the Supreme Court found that children in school have lower privacy expectations than other people because they require constant supervision and control.
From Pete’s perspective, these policies limiting parental observations are at odds with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s requirements regarding parental participation. Pete notes that the No Child Left Behind Act also requires increased parental participation, not discouraging or forbidding it.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools that receive Title I funds (which almost all schools do) must meet with parents to develop a policy regarding parental involvement and must distribute the policy to parents and the community. Parents are to have access to school staff and opportunities to participate in their child’s classroom activities. The school must hold a meeting every year to tell parents about the parent involvement policy. Further, parents have a right to volunteer, inspect instructional materials, and to observe the classroom activities.
If you have questions about the school’s policies regarding observations at school, Pete and Pam recommend that you ask for a copy of the school board’s policy that prohibit parental observations of a child’s classroom or proposed placement. The director of special education may be able to help you obtain a copy of the school board policy. If your child’s school receives Title I funds, request a copy of the parent involvement policy that the school is required to develop.
In California, schools have put into effect policies designed to address another related issue: disruption to the learning environment. These policies stem from California law under which it is a misdemeanor for a parent or guardian to materially disrupt classwork or extracurricular activities or engage in substantial disorder of the school.
To prevent possible disruption, many schools have policies regarding school visitation. Under these policies, for a parent or guardian to visit their child’s classroom, the parent or guardian must follow certain procedures. Usually, the parent will have to sign in at the school office and obtain a campus pass before being escorted to their child’s classroom. Some schools require parents to schedule their visit well ahead of time to minimize disruption to students and staff.
If you do not follow the procedures, you may be escorted off campus or asked to leave unescorted. The formalities are designed to protect our children from unwelcome intruders. Most schools allow liberal access by parents who want to see their child’s classroom, and welcome parent assistance. Check with your school handbook or the school secretary regarding your school’s rules.
Martha Millar Law
California special education and special needs lawyer
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