Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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Parent and Student Rights

What to keep in mind when working with your students and their parents

Successful education requires collaboration between teacher, administrator, and parent. Unfortunately,  teacher-parent relationships are not always as positive as either party would wish. Teachers need to know what a parent can demand to avoid creating unnecessary conflict. Some parent rights are based on decisions by the courts, and others are based on specific provisions of the Texas Education Code. See what the education code provides in Chapter 26 (Parental Rights and Responsibilities).

Students also have rights, such as freedom of speech and religious expression. But students’ rights are often more limited than those of adults. Often, if a student wishes to exert a right, the student’s parents must make a request on behalf of their child.

Parent Rights

Rights regarding instruction

Parents have strong but limited rights to participate in their children's education. They have no right, however, to disrupt their child's school or monopolize a teacher's time.

Parents do not have a legal right to observe a classroom but can be allowed to do so by the teacher or district administration. If the administration agrees to a parent visit, the teacher must abide by the decision. Although parents don't have an absolute right to access classrooms, most schools allow them to visit classrooms for limited periods of time. Generally, parents are only bound by rules of visitation, such as scheduling appointments ahead of time, not visiting during testing, not staying longer than a specified time, and checking in at the front office before coming to the classroom. Many times, teachers also prefer no more than one or two visitors at a time. Parents who fail to adhere to schools' visitation rules or who repeatedly cause disruptions can be restricted from the classroom by the administration.

The administration should address any questions regarding whether an individual such as a divorced parent, stepparent, or other individual acting as a parent should be allowed to visit the classroom.

Texas Education Code 26.003 provides that parents can request their child be assigned to—or away from—a particular teacher or class. A school cannot unreasonably deny such a request, but it doesn't have to honor such a request if it would affect another student’s assignment. Although many administrators have a policy of requiring or encouraging a meeting with the teacher prior to a reassignment, such a meeting is not legally required.

Both state and federal law give parents substantial access to information about their own child. This includes instructional material, lesson plans, tests (after the test has been administered), and subjective evaluations of students made as part of entry into co-curricular activities. It also includes attendance and disciplinary records, counseling and psychological records (though there are limited specific exceptions), and reports or records regarding behavioral patterns and academic intervention strategies. While there are very limited exceptions, such as reports of child abuse by a parent, the rule of thumb is that parents are legally entitled to any and all information about their own child.

As parents have a right to full information regarding their child's school activities, communication from the school, particularly the child's classroom teacher, is essential. (Classroom newsletters are a good tool for this.) Teachers should also answer parents’ specific questions in a reasonable manner via personal conferences, phone calls, or notes sent home with the child.

State law provides that a parent has a legal right to information about their own child. This general right to information is also provided in federal law under the Family Education Rights and Property Act (FERPA).

FERPA is best known, however, for establishing that information regarding a student is generally confidential and cannot be shared with anyone other than the student’s parents or another educator with a legitimate educational interest in the information without prior consent by the parent.

The administration should address any questions regarding whether information can be shared with an individual such as a divorced parent, stepparent, or other individual acting as a parent.

Section 26.010 of the Texas Education Code provides that parents have the right to temporarily remove their child from instruction or another school activity when it conflicts with the parents’ religious or moral beliefs. The parent must provide a written statement authorizing the removal to the district. The parent is not entitled to remove the child to avoid a test or for an entire semester.

Section 26.011 of the Texas Education Code provides that a parent has a right to complain regarding any aspect of their child’s educational experience. The complaint may be pursued informally through a meeting with the educator or administration. It may also be pursued more formally through the district’s parental grievance process. Complaints relating to special education services also have a special formal process.

Although it is certainly a “best practice” for parents to address concerns with the teacher first, or for the administration to direct the parents back to the teacher if they have not yet tried to resolve the issue with the teacher, there is no actual requirement this occur.

Are parent complaints “slander”?
It is difficult for an educator to take legal action against a parent who brings a complaint that an educator feels is false. An educator’s due process rights apply when the district threatens or takes negative action against the educator, but those rights are related to the district and its actions. Educators regularly question whether they might have a right to sue a parent, claiming a parent’s false accusation amounts to slander. While it might be difficult for an educator, just like anyone, to be comfortable with negative and untrue information remaining accessible to the public, a legal action is difficult to pursue unless the educator has suffered some type of actual financial injury. A threat of legal action also simply intensifies the negativity by adding another chapter to the parent’s book of complaint.

Common situations where parental permission is required

Parents have the right to refuse to consent to their child undergoing psychiatric treatment or testing. Unless serious physical or mental injury could reasonably result from the parents’ refusal, an educator is prohibited from making a report of child abuse or neglect against a parent on the sole basis of the refusal to agree to psychiatric testing or the administration of psychotropic drugs. There are special rules relating to a parent’s refusal to allow testing to determine a child’s possible entitlement to special education services.

In many cases, prior parental permission is required before an educator videotapes or audiotapes a student. The law provides broad exceptions to this requirement. The exceptions are for recordings made for:

  • The purpose of safety, including the maintenance of order and discipline in common areas of the school or on a school bus.
  • A purpose related to a co-curricular or extracurricular activity.
  • A purpose related to regular classroom instruction.
  • Media coverage of the school.

Because these exceptions are vaguely worded and subject to interpretation, educators should seek guidance before recording a student. It is also possible a local policy could have more restrictive rules than that required by the education code, so an educator should know the local policy.

Student rights

The U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in 1969 that students have free speech rights under the First Amendment in the well-known Tinker v. Des Moines School District opinion. But in Tinker, the court also explained that those rights were not absolute. Just as a citizen does not have a First Amendment right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, a student’s free speech rights can be restricted. The court made it clear that school officials could restrict communication that “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.” Since 1969, educators, students, and courts have grappled with whether a particular student expression was sufficiently disruptive to allow its prohibition.

Student expression through school-organized channels such as the school newspaper, choices of theatrical productions to perform, or books to maintain in the school library are subject to tighter controls by school officials under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision. Here, the court held that school-sponsored forums could be more tightly controlled because they were a part of the school curriculum. This distinction between a student’s individual expression and expression through a school-maintained forum has been controversial, and the courts have remained busy dealing with legal challenges to a multitude of issues, from district censorship of school newspapers to removal of particular books from school libraries.

The Pledge of Allegiance
A common issue in student expression is when or if a student can refuse to participate in the daily pledges of allegiance to the U.S. and Texas flags. Section 25.082(a) of the Texas Education Code requires all school districts to adopt a policy requiring students to recite the pledges of allegiance to the flags. Section 25.082(c), however, provides that on written request from the student’s parent or guardian, a school will excuse the student from reciting the pledges.

Likely no area is as confusing and difficult for a public school teacher and administrator than the role of religion in public schools. What must be prohibited versus what must be allowed is ever-changing and likely to continue evolving.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is the most important consideration of a student’s rights regarding religious expression. The First Amendment establishes two related and equally important requirement for public school teachers and administrators—commonly referred to as the “establishment clause” and the “infringement clause.”

The Establishment Clause—limits on discussing your beliefs
The First Amendment “establishment clause” prohibits the government from promoting a particular religious belief. Public school teachers do not lose their own rights to their own religious beliefs, but while acting in their professional capacity as teachers, they are legally considered agents of the government, so they must be careful not to promote their own beliefs when they are teaching.

The important question is whether the teacher’s students are old enough and sophisticated enough to distinguish between two things: first, their teacher’s personal beliefs regarding religion, which they are free to agree or disagree with, and second, the teacher’s authority to present the curriculum and require students to accept it as true and grade the students accordingly. In most cases, a student must accept a teacher’s statements as true. For example, a teacher can grade a test answer that 2 + 2 = 5 as wrong and does not have to accept a student’s claim that they believe it to be true. The question is, are the students sophisticated enough to understand the difference between this and a teacher’s statement of their personal religious belief?

The “Infringement Clause”—restrictions on limiting student expression of their own beliefs
The First Amendment “infringement clause” prohibits the government from infringing on the religious belief of a citizen, including a public school student. The infringement clause has been a source of a substantial amount of litigation by parents backed by various and special interest groups.

As the area of law is so fluid, there is not a good set of rules for teachers to follow; therefore, the best practice is for teachers to immediately involve the administration if a student requests permission regarding a religious-themed activity, whether it is modifying an assignment or passing out religious-themed gifts to classmates.

Texas Education Code on religious expression

In addition to the constitutional issues described above, the Texas Education Code also provides protections for student expression on religion. Section 25.151 provides:

A school district shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.

The Education Code goes on to state specific rules districts and district staff must follow to ensure that the district or its staff do not discriminate.

Limited right to public religious expression – Texas Education Code §25.152

  • Requires that a district establish a “limited public forum” when students can publicly speak as school events. The forum cannot discriminate against a student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.
  • Provide a method, based on neutral criteria, for selection of student speakers at school events.
  • Ensure a speaker does not engage in obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd, or indecent speech.
  • State in writing or orally that the student’s speech does not reflect endorsement, sponsorship, position, or expression of the district.
Religious expression in class assignments – Texas Education Code §25.153
  • Provides that students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written or oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content. The work must be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance to the assignment, and a student cannot be penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content.  

Religious groups and activities – Texas Education Code §25.154

Allows students to organize into religious groups to the same extent that students are allowed to organize into secular groups. The groups must be given access to school facilities to the same extent that noncurricular groups are.

Religious groups and activities – Texas Education Code §25.154

Allows students to organize into religious groups to the same extent that students are allowed to organize into secular groups. The groups must be given access to school facilities to the same extent that noncurricular groups are.

Right to pray – Texas Education Code §25.901

Provides that a public school student has “an absolute right to individually, voluntarily and silently pray or meditate in school in a manner that does not disrupt the instructional or other activities of the school.” Also provides that “a person may not require, encourage, or coerce a student to engage in or refrain from such prayer or meditation during any school activity.”

Although the Texas Education Code provisions are intended to provide protection to districts and educators in allowing student expression, they must be read in context of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on religious endorsement, so the complex question of what must be allowed versus what must be prohibited is likely to remain not completely answered for some time.

Published/reviewed: May 4, 2020

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.