By Kevin Lungwitz
The key to healthy relationships is good communication. This is also true when it comes to educators and parents. I do not recall an educator getting in trouble for keeping parents too informed. Indeed, robust communication has absolved many an educator from specious accusations. On the other hand, I can recall several instances of educators delaying or downright failing to communicate with parents, resulting in a bigger problem than the underlying event.
Communicating Expectations Up Front is Big
A perennial parent complaint goes something like this: “I didn’t know my child was not turning in their work.” “I did not know my child was failing this class.” “I did not know that homework accounted for 40% of my child’s grade.” You’ve heard these types of concerns before. You should insist your teachers communicate clearly and in detail with students and parents at the beginning of the semester what the classroom expectations are for the year; what is required and expected academically and behaviorally. It is much easier to enforce rules that have been clearly posted and communicated to students and parents, than it is to make up rules on the fly when things go awry. Said another way, it is much harder for a parent to object when rules have been clearly posted, and the parent has acknowledged receipt.
Communicating Progress is Key
Posting rules upfront is just the beginning. Keeping parents informed throughout the year is key. When a parent says they have not heard of anything going wrong in the class until they got the failing grade, school staff must be able to show the communication attempts that were made. Schoology and Remind are a couple of platforms that allow educators to communicate upcoming events and expectations to students and parents.1 Emails and phone call attempts should also be documented. School staff cannot make a parent respond, but if school staff documents multiple attempts to communicate, then failure to communicate will be on the parent, not staff.
When Unusual Things Occur, Prompt Communication is a Must
Rules have been posted—check. Academic updates have been sent home—check. Now, something unusual happens: Two students are allegedly involved in inappropriate activity on the school bus. School officials learn about it the same day, but don’t call parents until the investigation is finished, some three or four days later. Even if the allegation is not proven, the delay in communication to the parents is guaranteed to make the matter much worse.2 Whenever something odd or unusual happens, especially as it relates to student or campus safety, prompt communication with parents is a must. It is much better to lay it all out there as soon as practical (keeping in mind required confidentialities) than to be accused of being asleep at the switch. If an unusual event impacts the whole campus and a campuswide communication is required, it is best to work with your central office on wording and distribution, and possible media coverage.
It’s Time to Rethink Texting
Most of us use personal smart phones to text and call everyone in our lives, both personal and professional. The inclination to do so is no different for an educator seeking to quickly and appropriately communicate with a student. However, it is time to rethink this. As a technical matter, it is not illegal, per se, if an educator texts, emails or calls a student about school related matters, while using the educator’s personal cell phone and private communication platform. However, in the last decade or so, this has been increasingly frowned upon by schools and TEA, as private smart phones have been the preferred tool for inappropriate student communications. Also, it may very well violate district policy, causing even more heartburn for the employee. Many schools have revised policy DH (local) in recent years to say this: “Unless an exception has been made … an employee shall not use a personal electronic communication platform, application, or account to communicate with currently enrolled students.” (emphasis added)
Furthermore, a law was passed in 2017 that gives school employees (including you) the right to not share their personal phone number or personal email with students or parents.3 It is time to fully embrace the gift this law gives. Impress upon your staff you do not expect them to share their numbers or emails with parents, and certainly not with students. This will keep staff from feeling they have to be “on” 24/7. Tell your staff to work with parents through school email and other school communication platforms, and school phone, and that you will do the same. Now, at the first parent night, tell your parents that you’ve directed your teachers not to share their personal numbers. Then spend some time informing parents about the acceptable school communication platforms.
But I Can Still Text My Trusted Assistant Principal About the Teacher’s Odd Behavior; And We Can Still Trade Snarky Texts About the Problem Parent, Right?
There is nothing wrong with texting between employees, but cut the snark. This goes for your teachers, too. Those texts, if school-related, may be discoverable in a public records request. About 15 years ago, most professionals quit sending unvarnished emails because they understood those emails might be discovered by the angry parent or employee. However, those same school officials began texting each other on their private phones about professional matters. However, those texts, if they contain school business—even if they are on your private phone, on your private time, using your private server/ISP—are arguably as discoverable under the Texas Pubic Information Act as school emails; and to complicate matters, they may be subject to records retention laws. Avoid the embarrassment of the snarky text discovered by the parent.
In conclusion, it is best for all school employees to channel all professional communication through a platform managed and maintained by the district and to always follow the Grandmother Rule: Don’t send it if you would be embarrassed to show it to your grandmother.
Kevin Lungwitz practices law in Austin and is a former Chair of the School Law Section of the State Bar of Texas.
1These products are not endorsed by the author or TEPSA. They are only mentioned as examples.
2Note: This article is about parent communications. But also keep in mind your duty to report suspected child abuse to CPS within 48 hours, and to not wait on the results of the school’s investigation before doing so.
3Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 38.027. See school district policy DH.
TEPSA News, September/October 2021, Vol 78, No 5
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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.