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Back On Campus: Fall Focus For Independent Schools

[October 13, 2015] As the leaves turn orange and red in New England, now is the time for independent schools all over the country to focus on new developments and best practices so that the 2015-2016 academic year runs smoothly.

Update Enrollment Agreements. ‘Tis the season to update enrollment agreements – whether in paper or online format. Enrollment agreements are the key contractual foundation of the school-family partnership, providing schools with an annual opportunity to establish expectations of students and families, far beyond the dollar and cents provisions related to tuition, fees, financial aid and payment plans. With an increasing number of international students on campuses, we recommend including provisions addressing student health insurance and clarifying the scope of the school’s responsibility with respect to transportation and housing (both in dormitories and homestays) during school vacations and even over the summer months. We recommend clarifying the use of “student media information,” to enable the school to have flexibility in using images of student art and written work, video productions and images of the students themselves, on the school’s website, in newsletters and brochures, or anywhere else the school wishes to promote its unique learning environment. Take the time to ensure compliance with federal and state e-signature laws to ensure that electronic enrollment agreements are as enforceable as paper. Some schools are moving towards “perpetual” enrollment agreements – an increasingly state-specific issue. And, finally, if there are students 18 and older on campus, be sure that these older students are involved in the enrollment process so that the school can continue to freely communicate with parents and legal guardians.

Educate The School Community On Preventing Sexual Assault. Given the bright spotlight shining on this topic, independent schools have been developing and fine-tuning policies and protocols to raise awareness about teenage sexual assault, learn what can be done to prevent it, and skillfully manage any situations that may arise. We recommend educating students, faculty and staff, the Board, and parents, about preventing and, if necessary, investigating sexual assault.

Students should be provided information in a safe and interactive forum in which they are given the opportunity to ask questions and engage with the material. Consider discussing how students can: minimize the risks of being an alleged perpetrator of sexual assault; avoid becoming a victim or potential victim of sexual assault; and best practices for conducting themselves as bystanders to potential sexual assault. We recommend that students be given a practical, real world understanding of key concepts such as sexual harassment, sexual assault, consent, date rape, stalking and dating violence and information about, and access to, available resources and procedures for preventing and responding to sexual assault. In sum, “yes means yes and everything else means no” – the mantra of 2015.

We recommend that faculty, staff, dorm parents and the Board of Trustees attend a comprehensive “Boundary Training,” to assist the School in preventing and intervening if students (or employees) engage in sexual assault, bullying, sexting, hazing, and any other behaviors in which boundary lines may be crossed.  A comprehensive educational program should address federal and relevant state laws, including external reporting requirements (to child welfare authorities and the police) as well as recommendations for how a school can manage investigations and offer support to students and others involved.

We encourage schools to educate the parent community about responsible chaperoning guidelines for off-campus social events. Some schools circulate a list of “safe houses”—homes self-selected by parents where alcohol and weapons possession and other risky behaviors will be monitored and prohibited—but schools should be careful that they are not unwittingly “sponsoring” parties in private homes or certifying that such homes are safe and thus exposing the school to potential liability. Discipline and acceptable use policies should be updated to ensure that schools have the flexibility—but not necessarily the obligation—to discipline students for off-campus misconduct, like sexting and sexual assault.

Prevent Up-Skirting. Today’s digital age presents constantly evolving challenges for independent schools–one new frontier is “up-skirting,” the term used to describe surreptitious and unconsented recording of a person’s intimate area. We have already advised several schools with respect to teenage/middle school “up-skirting” pranks. Many states, including California, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Washington, have enacted laws targeting this conduct with enhanced penalties, like jail time. With these heightened stakes, we recommend that independent schools review their technology and social media policies to ensure that up-skirting (in addition to sexting, cyber-bullying and other inappropriate on-line conduct) is explicitly prohibited and that students, faculty and staff are fully versed in the school’s guidelines for the appropriate use of technology on (and off) campus.

Accommodate Students With Diabetes. Appropriate accommodations for diabetic students in independent schools have been a fairly high-profile issue across the country. Who should (and can) be providing diabetes care to students during the school day if a school nurse is not on campus? The extent to which diabetes care may (or must) be provided by non-medical professionals varies based on state law. In those states in which delegation of medical care to non-medical school personnel is permissible (and/or required), schools may need to ensure that they are complying with appropriate protocols for such delegation, including what can be delegated (routine care or emergency intervention only), how such delegation should be monitored, and what records need to be kept. Schools should also consider medication administration logistics for field trips and extracurricular activities, as well as considering back-up and emergency response plans. We encourage schools to proactively address this issue by reviewing and, if appropriate, updating their student health and disability policies.

Manage Disclosure Of Student Mental Health Information. We recommend that independent schools consider having parents execute an authorization form at the beginning of the school year to permit sharing of student mental health information both internally and with external providers, before a mental health crisis arises. Such an authorization might delineate the distinct roles of the school counselor (a school employee) and any external mental health or healthcare providers (not school employees) who consult with the school and/or provide direct services to students.  Consider whether a school counselor is establishing a private, therapeutic relationship with students or instead, is supporting students’ educational, social and academic experiences.  This distinction is particularly important because the school counselor may share information with other members of the school community on a need-to-know basis for purposes of meeting students’ educational needs.  The School may want to implement a structure that allows external mental health providers to share relevant student information with the school, so that internal school personnel and external providers are collaborating based on shared information.  As an additional benefit, this authorization form may promote a clearer understanding about expectations of confidentiality for students and families as well as for faculty and staff.  Since the form authorizes the sharing of medical and mental health information, it is important for the school to obtain written consent from any student who is 18 or older, even if the student’s parents sign the form.

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We hope this information is helpful. Please feel free to contact any of the attorneys in the Firm’s Education Group with questions or if we can be of assistance.