Custody/Parenting issues related to a child's school

 

Friend of the Court Program

Background

In recent years, especially with rising divorce rates and the number of families in conflict over the parenting of their children, schools have been dragged unwillingly into the divorce fray.  Many school officials  acting without clear policy and with little understanding of the dynamics of family conflict, have often reacted in ways which has only served to intensify conflict within the family, create bad feeling between parent and school and further cause emotional harm to children.   Lack clear policies and failure to inform teachers and school officials about how to effectively deal with this growing area of concern has helped to allow this problem to continue.

The vast majority of problems involving children of separation and divorce at school are created when one parent, usually the custodial parent, will attempt to manipulate teachers and school officials into a position that supports them in their attempts to create interference with their child's relationship with the other parent or members of the other parent's extended family during the times that the child is in attendance at school.

Often, the parent who is attempting to manipulate the system is doing so out of anger and revenge against the other parent.  Seldom are they acting in the interests of their child.. Teachers and school officials must be vigilant to ensure that they do not get drawn into the conflict by taking sides and reacting in a manner that is damaging to the child or acting outside of the law.

Some signs of an parent who is engaging in alienating and controlling activities:

  1. Request that the non-custodial parent not be allowed to visit the child while the child is at school (such as lunches and recesses, even though the custodial parent is not able to be there.

  2. Try to prevent the other parent from participating on school trips, classroom activities or other events.

  3. Insist that report cards and other school documents be given to them and not the other parent.

  4. Not provide the other parent with copies of announcements from school. 

  5. Make a lot of personal comments about the non custodial parent which are not relevant to the best interests of the child.  Comments are directed mainly at the integrity of the other parent in an attempt to make them look bad.

  6. Claim that the child says they they do not want to see the other parent (Never accept the word of a any one parent)

  7. The custodial parent will try to keep non-custodial parent isolated from teachers and school officials. These parents do not want teachers are school officials to see how good a relationship that the non-custodial parent has with the child nor to they want the non-custodial parent to communicate and possibly have the truth be heard.

  8. Appear to be disturbed by the other parent's presence at school functions and seem to go out of their way to avoid the other parent at such activities.  Often they will avoid talking to the other parent.

  9. Will not want the school to be used as an exchange point for the children and insist that the children be exchanged at a location of their choice.  Generally this is a place where they can have more control over, such as their home.

Generally, alienating parents are very good at convincing school officials that what they ask for is necessary because the "other" parent is the problem and that it is not good for the child to be with the other parent. They will say that because they are the "custodial" parent that they, and only they, control all aspects of a child's life, including the right to control the child's association with the other parent.

Most children want to see both their parents.  Often the opportunity of a child to see a non-custodial parent at school can be an eagerly sought, valuable and precious experience for the child.  Denying a child the opportunity of having both of their parents take an active role in their lives at school is a form of child abuse and counterproductive to the child's education and learning experience.

Unfortunately, too many teachers and school officials are misled by the custodial parent and take a position which in most cases is detrimental to the child and the child's relationship with the non-custodial parent and extended family.  In many cases it is wrongly assumed that there must be some problem with the non-custodial parent, just because they are labeled a non-custodial parent.  Too often, however, good loving parents are relegated to being non-custodial parents, not because of their parenting abilities but because the court system has been unable to recognize the importance of parents involvement with their children's lives at school or to recognize really how good that parent is with their children. Unfortunately, in the adversarial court system, one parent is the winner and one the loser.  In this scenario the real losers are the children.

In response to this problem facing the schools, members of the Family Justice Review Committee, together with input from various health, legal, educational professionals came up with a number of suggestion and recommendations to help teachers and school officials do what it right for our children.

 

The guidelines and recommendations developed here have been based on the following criteria:

  1. To provide teachers and school officials with practical and easy to follow guidelines.

  2. To promote respect, fairness and consideration to both of the child's parents and extended family members.

  3. To take into consideration the child's wishes.

  4. To minimize the likelihood of confrontation between the school and parents

  5. To avoid misinterpretation of Court Orders are respected.

  6. To help minimize conflict between parents and family members.

  7. To ensure that the rights and freedoms of parents are not 

  8. To minimize the possibility of lawsuits against school officials or school boards.

  9. To help ensure that any other factor considered relevant to the best interest of the child is considered in any decision made by teachers or school officials.

 

Guidelines for educators to help reduce conflict in families and to help promote the best interest of their students

 

Do not get caught in the middle by trying to interpret Court orders

Unless a court order specifically states something is to be done, don't do it.  When in doubt ask the requesting parent to get the court to make the order more specific.  Where there is doubt, make decisions based on the child's best interest.  From the perspective of an educator, the involvement of parents in their children's lives at school is a positive influence that has a tremendously positive effect on the child.

 

Encourage third party involvement

Educators can encourage parents to use the services of third parties who are trained to deal with the types of problems facing separated or divorced parents.  Third parties such as mediators or family coordinators can act as a third party and provide services as a liaison between the school and the parents.  It is important for educators to keep out the dispute as much as possible and let trained third parties deal with these kinds of problems.  When schools deal with third parties instead of the parents when there is a dispute over access, then at least they know that the information they receive from a third party is reliable.  If educators get involved in matters outside of those relevant to the best interests of the child, then they may find themselves at odds with one of the parents, which should be avoided if possible.

 

Never assume that a parent is a "risk" to their child

Sometimes schools over-react when a non-custodial parent shows up at the school. If a parent has been granted unsupervised access to a child, which most are, then it is safe to assume that the court has determined that the child is not at any risk with that particular parent.  Most parents love their children, and those that bother to take the time to show up at the school often are the ones who are trying harder to be with their children.  If a non-custodial parents shows up at the school to pick up their child, then why should they be treated or questioned any differently than any other parent?  Once staff at a school know who a particular parent is, then they should not be treated any differently than any other parent.

 

In fact, questioning a non-custodial parent or interfering with them seeing their child, could be the basis of a human rights complaint or a lawsuit against the teacher and the school.   Remember, it is not the job of the school to interpret or enforce court orders. Leave this is the job of the courts and the police.

 

For problem cases, keep court orders on file

In situations where a parent is wanting to have the school take action on a matter they "claim" is in a court order, ask the parent to bring in the court order so that it can be reviewed to ensure the accuracy of the parent's claim.  Court orders are considered public documents and are on file at the courthouse.  If t is thought that there may be ongoing problems with a particular parent and it is expected that other teachers or staff may face similar requests in the future by the same parent, the school should keep a copy of the court order in the student's file for future reference.

 

Encourage and Promote Parental involvement at their child's school

Whenever possible, schools should encourage parents to become involved in their children's activities at school.  Many studies have confirmed that parental involvement with their children's schools can have significant and positive impact on a student's performance at school.  Children of separation and divorce already are at a disadvantage with other students so anything that educators can do to help these children better their grades should be encouraged.  A large study of almost 17,000 children, completed recently in the United States, clearly shows that students do better when parents are involved at their children's school.  This was especially true in cases where non-custodial parents became involved.  Link here to study by U.S. Department of Education

 

Do not be allow yourself to be used as a gatekeeper by a vindictive and controlling parent

Often parents with custody will come to the school and tell the school that the non-custodial parent cannot see the children before, during or after school. Politely tell these parents that schools are to educate kids not to fill the rolls of take the place of the courts or the police.

 

Treat all parents and family members with respect and give them equal consideration

Try to treat parents of separation and divorce no differently than you would any other parent.  Give then the same consideration and respect as all the other parents.  Try to understand that these parents, especially those who are considered as non-custodial parents are going through great hardships. The problems faced by these parents affects their children which in turn affects them as students.

 

Get involved when it comes to the best interest of the child!

Teachers and educators play an important and vital role in the future of our young people. They should take their important role as a member of our community seriously by helping those children and families who are in need.  If you see a parent acting in a manner that is not in the best interest of their child, then if asked to do so by any party, report this.  Too often, educators see vindictive and controlling parents try to destroy a child's relationship with another parent, yet when asked by one of the parents to help bring this to the court's attention, they say "I don't want to get involved."  One old saying states that "It takes a village to raise a child."  Both parents and educators are part of the community's village and all must share a responsibility for all those children who live within our "village." 

 

Recognize the signs of a hostile, controlling and alienating parent

All educators should read the list of items which help to identify a parent who is alienating the children.  Recognize these signs and report them to the other parent.  Parental alienation and hostile parenting is child abuse.  Any parent who tries to keep another parent from taking an active role in their child's activities at their school is not acting in the best interests of their child.

 

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

What if the custodial parent says that they don't want the other parent to have access to any of the child's school records?

Current laws clearly state that all parents have the right to the children's school records.  Non-custodial parents should be given the same rights to access of their child's records as any other parent.  The only time that this would not be allowed would be if there is a court order specifically stating otherwise which is extremely rare.  Schools must make it clear to parents trying to exert control over the child and the other parent, that the school will not cooperate with a controlling parent.

What if the custodial parent says that they don't want the other parent to see or communicate with the child while at school?

Should there be a request to restrict a parent's access to their child while at school, teachers and school officials should ask the requesting parent to provide them with a copy of the court Order which states precisely what they claim it does.   If the current court order does not specifically state that the non-custodial parent is not allowed to communicating with the child during times when the child is at school when the custodial parent is not present, then the school is obligated not to interfere in any relationship between the non-custodial parent and their child.  The parent should be told that it is not the school's job to act as gatekeeper for the children in custody/access disputes nor to interpret Court Orders in a manner that is interpreted by the custodial parent.  If necessary, a letter could be given to the custodial parent advising them that this is school policy.

If a parent feels that their demands are justified then they should be prepared to take the matter back to court to have a court Order that is more specific in its wording to state that access is barred during school times.  This will force the custodial parent to have to explain their reasons to court where a proper hearing can be made.  It is only fair that both parents and the wishes of the child be taken into consideration in a fair manner.

Unless court Orders clearly ban unsupervised contact between a parent and a child, educators should  give parents of separation and divorce the same considerations as other parents at the school.

What if the custodial parent continues with their demands and acts in an unreasonable or hostile manner?

In most cases, a simple request to the custodial parent to obtain a court order reflecting their desires more specifically will stop the problem.  Many of these parents know that what they are asking is unreasonable and will not press further.   In rare cases, however, a vindictive or highly emotional parent may press the issue.  At this point it is important that the school not appease the parent by backing down from correct policy.   Allowing a vindictive parent to get their way through intimidation will only promote further uncooperative behavior.  It must be remembered that the best interest of the child is paramount.

In such situations, the principle of the school should contact the non-custodial parent and advise them of the current efforts to thwart their access to the child.  The hostile parent should be advised that continued efforts may force the school to support the non custodial parent to obtain a restraining order.  This will allow the non-custodial parent the opportunity to have the matter addressed by a Court.  In this matter both parents will have an opportunity to have their arguments heard before a judge. 

What if one of the parents wants the teacher to write a letter based on their observations of the child in school or about the child's relationship with the parent?

Sometimes a parent may ask a teacher or the school to provide them with a letter to support their relationship with the child or to provide evidence that the child may be experiencing problems at school .  They may request the teachers to write down their observations about the child's relationship with their parent or to confirm a parent's involvement with their child at the school.

By all means, educators must take their role as members of the community and to support any parent on matters that may be relevant to the child.  Aiding in the process of bringing the truth to light is what each and every citizen has a moral responsibility to do.  In your reporting, however, state only your observations - do not go to the point of making any conclusions as this again puts you in the position of judge which may offend a parent or create difficulties to school..

Are schools good exchange points for parents to exchange their children?

In the vast majority of cases schools are an excellent point of exchange for children.  In this type of scenario parents drop off the children at the school at the beginning of the day.e morning or pick them up when school is finished.  This procedure allows both parents to have some access to the school and give the child the opportunity of having both parents meet them as school.  Having a parent come to a child's school is most welcomed by students.  Exchanging children at school also is an excellent way where parents who may be experiencing conflict can exchange children without the parents having to have direct contact between themselves.  In many cases, parents who are deemed to be controlling will not like the school being used as an exchange point, because they don't like the other parent having any contact with the school and the child at a location where they do not have control over this neutral point of exchange.  Many controlling parents will insist that the children be dropped off and exchanged at a location they select, often their own homes, in order to keep the other parent under their control.  Some parents have been known to have made false allegations of threatening when children are exchanged at their homes.  Schools are one of the most neutral and friendly locations that a child can be exchanged and the use of schools as an exchange point must be encouraged.