Keeping schools hazard-free. Guarding against potential danger. Serving as gatekeepers between students and the public. Classified employees perform the widest variety of jobs of any group of school workers, but they all share one thing in common: Their jobs directly affect the well-being of students. As the managers who supervise them, classified education leaders carry a heavy legal responsibility to create a safe and discrimination-free environment for employees as well as for students.
“Providing students a safe learning environment isn’t just a matter of keeping intruders out of schools, correcting behavioral issues or being mindful of possible threats,” says the California School Employees Association. “It’s also about building relationships and being positive authority figures.”
The stakes can be high. Lawsuits initiated by parents and employees have played a key role in shaping both California laws and district policies on everything from employee discipline to social media use. To avoid landing their districts in legal hot water, classified managers need to stay on top of the latest laws and court cases pertaining to school employees.
“Every year there are new legal issues, current court cases and legal briefings that affect classified managers, but they might not be aware of them because the issue hasn’t occurred yet in their particular department or district,” says Donis Coronel, director of ACSA’s Classified Education Leaders Academy in San Diego. Classified leaders who attend the academy will have the opportunity to join a round-table discussion with an attorney to learn about current legal issues and bring questions about the legal challenges they’re dealing with in their own districts.
“Classified managers face legal issues all the time,” she says. “You have to be very careful that you’re following the law. You can put your district in a great amount of jeopardy by not knowing the laws and not knowing the legal issues.”
Common areas of legal difficulty include:
Jobs that involve manual labor have a higher propensity for injury, and it’s common for classified leaders to supervise employees with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires managers to make reasonable accommodations for these employees—but the law is commonly misunderstood, Coronel said.
For example, many supervisors don’t realize that the employee must disclose the disability before accommodations are made.
“It’s not up to the employer to assume someone has a disability,” Coronel says. “ Unless they come forward and ask for accommodation, you’re to treat them like anyone else. If they haven’t told you, you don’t know anything.”
It’s also important to understand the legal difference between a temporary and permanent disability. The reasonable accommodation law applies only to permanent disabilities; if the condition is temporary, “it’s a whole different process,” she says.
Classified managers also need to know:
- What constitutes a reasonable accommodation.
- What the law requires of them.
- What paperwork is needed from the employee’s doctor.
- What information the employer is allowed to have under HIPAA laws.
Discipline is another tricky area for classified leaders. When an employee missteps, managers need to proceed delicately or risk a potential lawsuit. Legal issues can arise over the choices supervisors make when disciplining classified employees.
“Sometimes supervisors are frustrated with the situation, but they have to realize that unless it’s an egregious act—such as stealing or purposely injuring a child—you need to use progressive discipline,” Coronel says. “Start with the lowest level possible, then the next level.”
Confusion over what constitutes an egregious act is a common source of error for managers, who must be prepared to make sound judgment calls about when an employee’s behavior warrants more serious disciplinary action. What seems egregious in the eyes of a supervisor may not necessarily be egregious in the eyes of the law.
“It’s common sense,” Coronel says. “Most managers and supervisors handle it appropriately, but a lot of people from smaller districts don’t get much experience in disciplining employees.”
The explosion of social media has caused a new set of legal headaches for employers in many professions, and education is no exception. On social media, employees’ right to free speech often conflicts with students’, parents’ and colleagues’ right to privacy.
“As a school district employee, you’re a public figure no matter what job you hold,” Coronel says. “There are certain things you can’t post on Facebook or Instagram because it gives up too much personal info about a student, parent or another employee.”
Employees must also be careful how they talk about their school or district on social media.
“While the, First Amendment prevents police from arresting a person for publicly criticizing the chief of police, the mayor, the governor or even the president of the United States, the job of a public employee who speaks critically of his or her employer may or may not be protected by the First Amendment,” says research attorney David L. Hudson Jr.
Since the legal issues surrounding social media in the workplace are fairly new (and still developing), it’s important for classified education leaders to keep up with the latest case law. Not only do they need to be able to model appropriate social media use, but they need to know how to respond if employees get themselves in trouble.
These are just a few of the legal issues classified leaders are likely to encounter on the job. The more supervisors know about the laws that affect school employees, the better able they’ll be to protect both students and staff—and the less likely they’ll be to put their districts in legal jeopardy.