Legal and Moral Issues in Schools: The Responsibility of the Principal
The Ontario Education Act states that a principal holds the same responsibilities as the teacher and the following:
- The principal in responsible for proper order and discipline in the school
- The principal must give assiduous attention to the health and comfort of the pupils, to the cleanliness, temperature and ventilation of the school, to the care of all teaching materials and other school property, and to the condition and appearance of the school buildings.
- Subject to an appeal to the board, the principal may refuse to admit to school any person whose presence is the school or classroom would be detrimental to the physical or mental well being of the pupils.
- The principal is responsible for management of the school.
- The principal must provide for the care of students while not in class.
- The principal must report any infraction of school rules by the student to his parent or legal guardian.
Unless otherwise assigned to individual teachers, the principal is responsible for managing attendance problems. This includes following up on unexplained absences. Normally the principal delegates this responsibility to either the classroom teacher or the vice-principal.
Principals are responsible for the security of records and also for keeping those records up to date. A student’s record is not admissible as evidence in a court case or legal matter.
A teacher can suspend a student for one class, however the principal must be notified before the end of the school day.
The principal may suspend for more than one period. The suspension may last for no more than 30 school days. The suspension can include specific class periods, courses or extra-curricular activities. However, the director of the school board may extend the suspension if the principal can show that the presence of the student would continue to jeopardize the safety of employees or other students in the school. The director may also request a medical certificate stating that the student no longer threatens the safety of the school, before the student is allowed to return.
Only the director of the school board can expel a student from school. The principal has a role to play in expulsion. The principal shall “warn the student (recording the date and reason), notify the parents and the Director in writing about the warning and discuss with the parent the circumstances leading to the warning.
After an appropriate period of time has passed, and the student has made no attempt to correct behavior, the principal will notify the student, parents and director that he is making a recommendation for expulsion.
Prior to an order for expulsion being issued, the parents or the student (if 19 yrs or older) may request to meet with the director. The director then makes issues the order to expel or not.
The parents or the student (if 19 years or older) may appeal an expulsion or suspension. If the teacher made the suspension, the appeal must be made to the principal. If the principal made the suspension, the appeal must be made to the board. Any appeal must be made within 15 days. A meeting will be arranged with the involved persons and a decision will be reached within a reasonable amount of time.
Perhaps the most important information concerning legal issues deals with accidents and who is responsible when a student is injured.
In the event of accidents, many parties may be involved. If the student has the accident (which is most often the case), the parents will want to know what happened. While the upkeep safety of school buildings and property lies under the Occupiers Act and the School Board is ultimately the occupier, the principal is sometimes seen as the occupier in some circumstances.
According to the Occupiers Act, “an occupier of the premises owes a duty of care towards persons coming onto the premises.”
It is the responsibility of the principal to ensure proper and satisfactory supervision during out of class time, such as recess, lunch times and during board –approved after school activities. This most often includes devising an adequate system of supervision and carrying out such supervision during recess and lunch times. The responsibility of supervision during after school activities usually falls on the cooperating teacher. The school shall not be responsible for students who choose to remain after school and are not participating in board-approved activities.
The principal also has the responsibility to warn all occupants of the building of any unsafe areas. This would include damage that poses a risk to the general safety of occupiers. This includes clearing snow and ice from walkways, steps and parking lots as well as fire escape routes leading away from the building.
When a student makes a negligence claim against a school or teacher, the student must show that the accident would not have happened if there was more supervision or if the person responsible for the accident could have been stopped. Upon hearing a case in Ontario that involved a child being hurt by another child who was known to have violent tendencies, the judge ruled that adequate supervision was present and that because there was no indication of the student’s intention, teachers (being 25 feet away) could not have rushed to the scene in time to prevent the injury.
After an event has occurred, teachers and principals should be aware of the following guidelines set fourth:
- Principals and teachers should not admit liability for any accident or other incident that occurs on school property.
- Principals and teachers should not give written or oral statements to parents or opposing lawyers or insurance adjusters. This responsibility falls upon the school board.
- Principals and teachers should keep diligent notes regarding any incident including time and place of the incident, a description of the event and a list of witnesses.
- Teachers have the duty to inform the principal of any injury received which working. Principals then have the responsibility to inform the school board of such injury. This is required under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act of 1997.
Beyond safety for students and employees, the principal also has the job of creating an open and trusting atmosphere. To paraphrase Dave Dibbon, “trust is the basis for relationships.” In schools, the principal has a duty to build an atmosphere of trust – trust between teachers and students and trust between teachers and the administration. In dealing with some legal issues, often times a moral issue gets trampled on. The point of searching students when the presence of drugs is suspected was the basis for the role-play during our presentation.
Although the principal was not directly involved in our version of events, I feel he should have been. When one student accuses another of selling drugs, the teacher should ask herself, “why is this student coming forward now?” Most students would prefer to keep their hands out of the situation. Why stir up more trouble for them when they can avoid it? Once the teacher has decided that this is not a joke, she could have handled the situation differently.
My solution, from a principal’s point of view, is to search the student’s bag outside of the class. The moral issue of searching students without suspicion comes into play. The student did not need to be subjected to a search in front of the class. The teacher could have continued class as per normal and then with the changing of classes, ask the student to accompany her to the office. Because the principal can, in this case, contribute to the level of trust in the school, the search could have been conducted behind closed doors. Even thought nothing would have been found, in the case where something is found, the student’s right to privacy could have been respected more by having the search in private.