Angry pretty young woman in spectacles covering her ears with fingers and showing teeth

School personnel should expect to encounter a heated parent from time to time; parents are often understandably passionate about their children’s educations. But what happens when parental advocacy escalates from vigorous advocacy, strenuous objections, and detailed questions to baseless accusations, repeated demands, and threatening or vulgar language or actions? What can a school do when a parent’s hostile behavior continues over time, putting a strain on staff members’ time and impeding productive communication? A recent case out of the Ninth Circuit examined just such a situation and affirmed the rights of schools to put in place reasonable limits on communication.

In L.F. v. Lake Washington School District, a father in Washington State sued his daughter’s school district alleging, among other things, that the communication plan implemented by the school infringed on his First Amendment Rights. What is a communication plan? Such plans can set limits on who a parent can contact, how frequently that contact can occur, and the method of communication. On the flip side, a communication plan can be structured to simply notify the parent of which staff member will respond, how frequently, and in what manner—regardless of the type and frequency of parent communication. While the purpose of a communication plan is to structure and manage communication so that it can be productive, parents may view such plans as an unfair or unwarranted imposition on their rights, which is just what happened in this case.

In L.F., the school district implemented a communication plan with the parent after a series of “hostile and aggressive” communications and encounters with district staff. Examples included incessant emails accusing staff of wrongdoing, presumptuous demands, demeaning insults, and intimidating in-person interactions. The district’s plan limited the parent’s communications to biweekly, in-person meetings with two administrators. The parent was advised not to email or attempt to communicate in any form with any district employees outside those meetings and was told that employees would not respond to him if he did. The plan did not apply in the event of an emergency and did not bar the parent from attending school activities or accessing student records.

The parent sued. A trial court determined that the plan did not violate the parent’s First Amendment rights, and the Ninth Circuit Federal Appellate Court agreed. The Court explained:

Because government entities such as the District do not have to listen to parents’ views, it is not a constitutional violation to require that parents, if they wish to be heard, communicate only with particular staff members or do so only at a specified time and place. And because the government is under no constitutional obligation to respond to such views, there is no violation where a government entity such as the District ignores (or threatens to ignore) communications from outside the specified channels.

While the decision provides support to schools seeking to channel inappropriate and excessive parent communication, the decision does not give schools carte blanche on all communication restrictions. Schools must be mindful when creating communication plans to ensure the plans ultimately regulate the school’s conduct rather than the parent’s. For instance, in this case, if the parent violated the plan, the consequence was simply that the school would not respond.

Other tips to avoid legal trouble when implementing a parent communication plan include:

  • Allow parents continued access to student records under IDEA, FERPA, and ISSRA
  • Permit communication in the event of an emergency
  • Ensure that parent participation in IEP meetings and decisions is respected, and
  • Identify and respond if a parent’s communication includes a request for an independent educational evaluation (IEE), initial or reevaluation, IEP meeting, due process hearing, or student records or if the communication seeks to file a complaint under the school’s Uniform Grievance Procedure, even if the communication is outside of the communication plan.

Schools also must be mindful that the goal of a communication plan is to facilitate productive exchanges and collaboration between the parent and the school. Such plans cannot be used in an effort to suppress the parent’s speech based on disagreement with the parent’s point of view.

When in doubt, or for support creating a parent communication plan and handling the delicate and complex issues that come with them, contact the authors of this post or a member of our Franczek special education law team.