Chapter Four: Law and Education
Toni was the first to arrive in the seminar room at Foothills Collegiate, so she fixed herself another cup of coffee and sat back waiting for the rest of the group to join her. A final-year Bachelor of Education student, she was glad that she had signed up for a pilot field-based collaborative project at the Faculty of Education. The project was designed to enable students to spend more time working in schools, with part of their course work built around their school experiences.
There were five other Faculty of Education students in the school doing student teaching, and as part of their program they met twice a week as a group with the team coordinators ‒ Cynthia Phillips, a science teacher at the school, and Ian McKenzie, a professor at the university, who not only supervised their student teaching, but also taught them a course entitled “School Organization.”
On the main campus, “School Organization” was viewed by most of Toni’s friends as a tedious course ‒ not irrelevant, but fairly boring. Perhaps, she thought, she was lucky to have two good teachers working with her in the content area, but in the school this course seemed far from tedious. It was a chance to study and talk about a whole range of issues that seemed to be directly related to what she was trying to achieve in her classroom. Each class began with an open discussion period in which any member of the group could raise an issue or question that had arisen from their teaching.
Now that the rest of the group had joined her in the seminar room and exchanged greetings, the class began. Aaron, one of the students, initiated the discussion: “Do you know what has really been frustrating me this week? It’s all the red tape that is involved in trying to arrange a class field trip. I talked to the principal, and by the time he’d finished telling me about all of the regulations and all of the approval forms I’d have to get filled out, I just said, ‘Forget it, I’ll do something else.’ And in the end, it’s the kids who suffer.”
Cynthia, the teacher, broke in: “I know what you mean. There are a lot of procedures that have to be followed in this division, which is fine if you’re planning weeks in advance, but it makes doing things on short notice pretty difficult. But you know, field trips are potentially dangerous situations, and as professionals we need to make sure that we are proactive in minimizing any danger to the students. In part, it’s simply a matter of protecting yourself from personal liability. If something does go wrong, and if you comply with all the regulations, you’re likely to be protected as an employee who was following reasonable and appropriate protocols. But more than that, it’s a matter of being professional, of doing one’s job in a professional manner. And let me tell you, there is nothing worse than having something go wrong on a field trip ‒ like a student going missing ‒ and running around wondering what has happened and wishing you had been more careful with your instructions, supervision, or parental approvals!”
“I think it’s really important,” said Semareh, another student, “that we know the law so that we can stay out of trouble.” I heard about a teacher who lost her job because of the content she had on her social media sites. Apparently, someone forwarded the information to the school board and she was let go in short order.
That statement got the whole class talking. Karl burst out, “It seems like every time I turn around I have to worry about the trouble I might get myself in for doing my job! I had a student say to me, ‘Try to touch me, and my parents will sue you for assault.’ It was like he was asking me to do it, and I wasn’t even within reach of him. I’d just told him three times to go back to his seat.”
Narina said, “I was talking about some of this stuff with Ken ‒ you know, he’s the Head of English ‒ and he was talking about some parents who complained to the school board over some spoken-word poetry he was using in class just because it wasn’t in the provincial curriculum guidelines. They said it was too offensive and consisted of hate speech! It seems to me that we need to be lawyers as well as teachers!”
Ian, their professor, spoke up: “We’re going to be taking up many of these questions later in this course, but I think there are some important points to be made. First, Aaron and the rest of you mention the importance of being able to be creative and educative without being tied up in red tape. Second, Cynthia has noted the need to be proactive, to anticipate possible dangers and avoid them with reasonable precautions. Related to that is a third important issue, perhaps a bit more theoretical, that asks how we regulate school life in such a way that learning is taking place and at the same time the rights of all participants ‒ students, parents, teachers ‒ are being respected. I think this is where the law is particularly important, and should not be seen so much as an obstruction to the innovative teacher but rather as an attempt to balance and regulate the parameters of appropriate teaching practice. If you look at how the courts have actually ruled in Canadian cases, you’ll see that educators have been given considerable discretion by the courts, but that doesn’t mean we’re above the law.
“So, I think this discussion is important at several levels. How can I protect myself from being sued? How can I avoid potentially dangerous and inappropriate behaviour? And how can I better understand my role as a professional educator? Perhaps, Cynthia, we should stay with these questions for the rest of today’s class?”
This chapter examines some key aspects of law as it affects teaching and schools. The first part of the chapter provides a basis for thinking about legal issues, including;
- why law is important to educators;
- the processes through which laws are made and interpreted;
- the concept of natural justice and its relevance to education;
- the meaning of “rights”; and
- the nature and impact of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
The second part of the chapter discusses some of the important legal aspects of schooling, including;
- the powers and duties of teachers;
- negligence and liability;
- child protection;
- attendance at school;
- maintaining order and discipline;
- student rights and democratic practices;
- teaching practices such as curriculum and the school year;
- placement of students with special needs; and
Other important legal issues related to such matters as jurisdiction over education, minority languages, the status of teachers, and collective bargaining are discussed in the relevant chapters elsewhere in this book.