Meetings and Communications with Supervisors, Co-workers, and Parents
An educator is always communicating in some way to someone. Sometimes this communication is not entirely pleasant or voluntary. Volumes have been written on how to communicate effectively, but you should also know what legal requirements and prohibitions apply to your communication with others as a public school educator.
Some standards apply to all communication. The Educators’ Code of Ethics, which has been adopted by most, if not all, school districts to apply to all staff, provides that cooperation is essential. There should be no communication that threatens violence, inappropriately shares confidential information, or includes known false information.
Following is a brief and general overview of some of the legal guidelines and how they apply in situations common to educators.
Under Texas law, a supervisor, as an “authorized agent” of an employer, can generally require an employee to do anything that is not illegal. This rule holds true for meetings and communications. Here are a few common communication situations between an educator and supervisor:
- Meetings: If your administrator requests a meeting, you must generally attend. No law specifically states you must meet on demand, but many cases have upheld disciplinary consequences for refusal. An educator has no legal right to be accompanied by a representative or supporter at any meeting outside of the formal grievance process, and the supervisor is not required to give prior notice of the meeting or the subject matter unless these requirements are written into local policy. You must generally cooperate in the meeting, including answering questions. However, if your answer would incriminate you in criminal activity, or if questions involve your personal life rather than work-related subjects, you might have a right to refuse to answer. In either of these cases, you should get legal advice as soon as possible.
- Recording meetings: You may request permission to record a meeting, but a supervisor may refuse this request because an educator has no legal right to record a meeting outside of the grievance process. In Texas, it is legal to secretly record any conversation to which you are a party—in other words, at which you are actually present. However, using or sharing the recording proves that a person engaged in secretly recording, and this would likely be very damaging to any working relationship with the other individuals involved.
- Requests for a written statement: A supervisor can generally require an educator to draft a statement regarding a work-related matter. The general rules just described for meetings would also apply to these statements.
- Reporting criminal offenses: Most local board policies incorporate a requirement that district employees report certain arrests or convictions to designated administrators within a specified, and usually very short, time period. It is important to know your district’s policy as failure to make a required report in a timely manner can result in serious consequences to both your job and career. Again, because what you say might affect the criminal matter, and because you might face consequences due to the criminal offense itself, you should try to obtain legal advice.
- Supervisor’s communications: A supervisor is generally not legally obligated to respond to inquiries, explain decisions, or justify actions. There are specific exceptions where a response is required, however, such as in the formal grievance process or where a lack of response has its own consequences—such as when policy states that a leave request is considered approved if it is not denied by a certain date.
Your non-supervisory, peer co-workers cannot generally require any kind of communication from you other than that ultimately required by a supervisor, such as sharing lesson plans or cooperating in department meetings. Your relationship with your peers is, by definition, one of equals. However, there are laws that even regulate communication among equals. You may not harass a co-worker based on race, nationality, age, gender, religion, or disability. “It was a joke” is not considered a defense. You also should be very careful in comments that could be taken as sexually suggestive as they might be considered sexual harassment. Finally, you should be cautious in talking about a co-worker’s health, personal life, and business.
Of course, your peers have the same responsibilities to communicate to you professionally. If they fail to, the matter can be addressed to a supervisor. As a general rule, it is best to try talking to the peer who has created a concern first. This is not always possible of course, and in some situations, such as illegal harassment, cannot be required.
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Chapter 26 of the Texas Education Code guarantee parents’ rights to access education records, teaching materials, and state assessments regarding their child and also a right to information about their child’s academic progress. Therefore, an educator has a general obligation to share that information. There are exceptions as to what teaching material, such as tests, must be shared, so check with your supervisor if you have questions. FERPA prohibits an educator from sharing information about a student to most people other than the parents’ child or another educator with a “legitimate educational interest” in the information.
Separate from these specific parents’ legal rights, in most cases a supervisor can require that an educator communicate with parents about an issue, such as disciplinary matters, if supervisor believes it to be appropriate—even if the parents themselves might not be able to require it.
- Dealing with an abusive or argumentative parent: Unfortunately, there is no Parents’ Code of Ethics that requires a parent to communicate appropriately. When confronted with an abusive parent, an educator should remain calm. Escalation is never in the educator’s interest. Sometimes it is necessary to just let the parent vent, even if that is difficult. Having another educator—particularly an administrator—in the meeting or conversation with a parent can be a help; but remember that student confidentiality must be maintained. If the communication becomes too abusive, the educator may professionally ask the parent to control themselves and may, unless directed otherwise by a supervisor, tell a parent who is unable to communicate appropriately that the conversation will have to end and be taken up later.
- Apologies to a parent: When a parent has lodged a complaint, it is not uncommon for a supervisor to ask an educator to apologize to the parent in hope of resolving the matter quickly. Although this may be a legitimate strategy in some cases, doing so can have serious consequences for the educator in others. In some cases, an apology can be interpreted as an admission of wrongdoing that can have serious implications for an educator’s job and career. If you are asked to apologize to a parent, you should obtain legal advice before doing so—especially when a student has been injured.
Published/reviewed: February 5, 2021
The legal information provided here is accurate as of the date of publication. It is provided here is for informative purposes only. Individual legal situations vary greatly, and readers needing individual legal advice should consult directly with an attorney. Please note: Rights based on the Texas Education Code may not apply to all. Many Texas Education Code provisions do not apply to public charter schools, and public school districts may have opted out of individual provisions through a District of Innovation plan. Eligible ATPE members may contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department.