What Are Teachers’ Responsibilities to Their Students?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Parents may have legal options if teachers don’t meet their obligations to students under the law and ethical rules.

Every day when parents send kids off to school, they trust teachers and other school officials to care for their children’s safety and well-being as well as their learning. Teachers have a wide range of responsibilities to students that come from a variety of federal, state, and local laws and regulations. If they don’t meet these standards, parents might be able to file complaints and force changes—or even to sue the school in some circumstances.

In addition to the legal requirements, teachers are obligated to observe ethical standards in codes of professional responsibility adopted by local school districts and state education departments. The details vary, but many of these codes are based on the Model Code of Ethics for Educators recommended by the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. Typically, teachers will face a range of penalties for violating the ethical rules, including losing their license temporarily or permanently.

Teachers Should Provide Quality Education

Of course, most people would say that a teacher’s first responsibility is to teach well. Beyond the minimum requirements for the job (including education and credentials), federal, state, and local education agencies set out standards for providing high quality instruction and ensuring that all students have the opportunity to learn.

It’s not news, however, that many schools and teachers fail to meet those standards. When that’s true in your child’s school, what can you do? Unfortunately, whenever parents have tried to sue schools for failing to provide an adequate education (what’s known as educational malpractice), courts have usually thrown the cases out. If you can’t get your child into a better school, your only option may be to push for changes in educational (and maybe fiscal) policies, in your local school district as well as on a statewide level.

Teachers Must Provide Proper Supervision

Teachers have a legal duty to supervise students in the same way that a sensible, careful parent would do in similar circumstances. If students are hurt because of negligent supervision, their parents might be able to pursue a personal injury lawsuit against the school.

Teachers Must Protect Students’ Privacy

Both state and federal laws protect the privacy of school records. Schools must get permission from parents before revealing information from students’ records to anyone other than certain school officials and others with an educational or legal need to see the information.

Teachers also learn things about students that might not be in their records. For instance, children might tell their teachers (or inadvertently reveal) private information about their families. Ethical rules typically forbid teachers from passing on any information about students that they learn in the course of their work unless the disclosure is legally required or is necessary for purposes of the child’s education.

One legal exception to privacy rules stands out: State laws require teachers and other school employees to report when children are being mistreated. These laws vary from state to state, but teachers usually have to make a report whenever they suspect that a child has been abused or neglected.

Teachers Should Respect Students and Observe Boundaries

Ethical rules typically require teachers to show respect for all students, considering their age, gender, culture, and socioeconomic background. The Model Code of Ethics spells out specific behavior that teachers should avoid, including:

  • touching students unless there’s a clearly defined reason for doing so
  • maintaining personal relationships outside of school with students or their family members, if those relationships might get in the way of the teacher’s objectivity or effectiveness, and
  • engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship with students under any circumstances.

Obviously, the duty to respect students also includes refraining from any kind of physical or verbal abuse, harassment, or illegal discrimination.

Limits on Discipline

In order to ensure that all students have a safe and productive learning environment, teachers have a responsibility to discipline any students who disrupt the classroom and endanger other children. But state laws and regulations set limits on what teachers can do to carry out that discipline. Most states outlaw spanking or other types of physical discipline in schools, but a significant majority still allow it.

Talking With a Lawyer

Consider consulting with a lawyer if you suspect that a teacher has harassed, abused, or inappropriately touched your child, or has violated your child’s privacy. An attorney with experience in a field like education law should be able to give you practical advice about reporting the behavior to officials and getting them to respond to your complaints. In addition, a knowledgeable lawyer should be able to explain which laws apply your situation, and whether you have legal reasons for a possible lawsuit against the school.

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