By Kevin Lungwitz
If there are going to be complaints about you or your campus—and there probably will be—it is preferable the complaining party put it in writing. It is also preferable the complaining party follow the school district policies and the chain of command giving you the first crack at resolving the problem, but it is not always that easy. Sometimes, employees and parents ignore the rules, go rogue, and take their complaints straight to the board or social media.
Staff and Parent Grievances
If a staff grievance is filed on your campus, it is imperative for you to read and have immediate access to your district’s policy DGBA (local). Parent grievances are usually processed under policy FNG (local).1 These are your road maps to processing a grievance. Most staff and parent grievances are filed with the lowest level administrator with authority to resolve the complaint, which is usually the campus principal. This often gives the principal the first opportunity to hear and possibly resolve the complaint, followed by two or three levels of appeal. There are exceptions, e.g., the principal is not the immediate supervisor; the principal cannot grant the remedy; or the principal is accused of violating the law. In those cases, a grievance may be filed directly with the superintendent.2
If the grievance is filed with you, you may have the chance to be the judge at the level one grievance meeting. Here are some tips:
- Was the grievance timely filed? If not, consult HR, your supervisor or the school lawyer.
- Once the grievance is filed, promptly convene a grievance meeting within the DGBA or FNG timelines, usually within 7-10 business days. Timelines can be extended by agreement, but always document your attempt to convene the meeting.
- At the level one grievance meeting, give the grievant a reasonable opportunity to state the complaint, usually in 20-30 minutes or whatever may be agreed upon. Receive any documents they offer. Do not interrupt and do not argue. Save clarifying questions for the end.
- Do not allow yourself to be questioned. You are only there to listen and take notes, not to answer questions. Your notes should be professional. Assume the grievant may ask for a copy of them after the meeting.
- The grievant has a right to record the meeting. If they do, so should you. Always assume you are being recorded.
- If a lawyer or other representative shows up unannounced, let HR or your supervisor know. Policies DGBA and FNG allow you to postpone the meeting until the school district lawyer can be present.
- After the level one meeting, you must write a decision within the policy timeline. Usually, a decision recaps the time, date and attendees at the meeting, summarizes and briefly responds to each issue, grants or denies the requested remedies, and directs the grievant to policy DGBA or FNG for guidance in appealing.3
Some employees and parents ignore policies DGBA and FNG and take their complaints directly to board members or social media where there are few, if any, rules. Especially in smaller communities, a teacher or parent may call board members or talk to board members at the grocery store—and may even be invited to executive session to be heard—without ever filing a written complaint! Worse, complaints about you may be aired out on social media, giving no one in the school system adequate warning or opportunity to address the perceived problem.
Can Employees and Parents Talk to Board Members?
Yes. Although board members are under no duty to respond, employees and parents have a right to approach board members outside the formal complaint system.4 This is unnerving, because it deprives you of a formal, regulated way to hear and possibly resolve the complaint. If this happens, stay in touch with your supervisor or superintendent to make sure you are receiving as much information and guidance as possible. If you feel like your supervisors do not support you, then you might consider talking to a friendly board member for more information or guidance. You also have a right to do that but be prepared for possible political fallout.
I’m Being Trashed by a Parent on Social Media. What Do I Do?
There is even less school district control over these complaints. Unlike employees or students, you have little control over a parent. Parents have statutory and First Amendment rights to complain, within limits. You cannot fire, reassign, discipline, or throw out of office an angry parent who has taken to social media. What do you do? Here are some things to consider:
- You are not alone. Throwing rocks on social media is so much easier than filling out forms and trying to resolve problems in meetings. This is happening with alarming frequency.
- Do you have your supervisor’s unwavering support? If so, lay low and let upper administration respond to the social media complaint, if necessary. If you are worried about your job, let your supervisors run interference for you against the complaint, the school community, and the school board.
- Is the angry parent a “town scold,” known for complaining about any and everything, and this complaint has no merit and is not taken seriously by the board or community? Fine, all the more reason for upper administration to ignore it and for you to continue to lay low. This parent may fizzle out.
- “What if the complaint is gaining traction, a petition is going around, and now the real media is calling for a response? Should I talk to the press?” Unless it is part of an approved district plan, no. Do not talk to the press or make other public statements. Policy GBBA (local) says only upper administration or the board may speak for the district, not the principal.
- “Yeah, but upper administration is not coming to my defense and I am being scorched on social media! What can I do?” As long as you want to protect your job, you should defer to upper administration on messaging. As soon as you go it alone, you might find yourself out on the end of a long, brittle limb. Instead, stay in touch with your supervisors and consider gently pushing your supervisors to act. You might compose a draft of a parent letter or campus news release for your supervisor(s) to approve.
- “That does it, I am being defamed, my supervisors and board no longer have my back, their public responses are inadequate, and I hear I may be fired! Now can I fight back?” If you have been threatened with dismissal, you should consider hiring a lawyer. It is a difficult position to be in, as you will now be fighting a war on two fronts—one against the angry parent on social media and the other against the school district. But if your plan is to fight for your job, resign, or sue the angry parent for defamation, you will need a good lawyer to help you navigate those rough waters.
Nobody wants to hear complaints about themselves or their work. For a campus administrator, though, it is part of your job. There is no way to keep everyone happy all the time. On your campus, make it a point to educate and encourage your employees and parents to use the formal complaint systems in policies DGBA and FNG. This will likely give you more control over the process and outcomes.
Kevin Lungwitz practices law in Austin and is a former Chair of the School Law Section of the State Bar of Texas.
1There are other policies under which employees and parents may complain, but DGBA and FNG are the primary policies that obligate the district to meet with, hear, and respond to the complaint in writing.
2Not all DGBA and FNG policies are identical so always check your school district’s version.
3For more information on handling an employee grievance see TEPSA News May/June 2019.
4See Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 11.1513(j).
TEPSA News, August 2022, Vol 79, No 4
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Note: Information from Legal Ease is believed to be correct upon publication but is not warranted and should not be considered legal advice. Please contact TEPSA or your school district attorney before taking any legal action, as specific facts or circumstances may cause a different legal outcome.