A School is… (Verse 11)


A school is a legal and corporate entity whose structure, operations, and management must conform to legal and ethical standards of multiple jurisdictions.

More nuts and bolts, but strangely the requirements that these jurisdictions place upon schools will necessarily have more than a small effect upon their culture and programs.

Sometimes the effects can seem vexatious and trivial. I happen to work in a place, for example, where our local authorities have a deep-seated aversion to food waste. This meant that for many years can and bottle recycling was off the table, lest the sticky innards of empty soda cans attract unwanted critters whose presence, it was felt, would far outweigh the social benefits of recycling the darn things. Somehow in recent years there has been a change of heart, but decades of student environmental initiatives came to naught, creating a frustrating hidden curriculum in which next-level efforts—“We’ll get the students to make a proposal to the town!”—failed, as well.

As the snow piles up across the nation, one of my favorite new reads is a U.S. Department of Education document entitled State Regulation of Private Schools, 337 pages of detailed, state-by-state information on the rules and laws under which independent schools must operate. Sadly, in most states it would take a mathematical lawyer or bureaucrat to answer the “How many snow days are we allowed before we have to start making them up?” question, but the booklet—which I dearly wish I owned in dead-tree form, because I know just where I would like to keep it as a casual pick-up-and-read—is full of entertaining surprises.

For example, in New Hampshire the trustees of any private school must supply the school with a “United States flag, not less than five feet in length, with a flagstaff and appliances for display outdoors.” In the U.S. Virgin Islands, “The commissioner of education is responsible for disseminating materials to private and parochial school[s] for the celebration of John P. Scott Day, Melvin H. Evans Day, Rothschild Francis Day, and Cyril Emmanuel King Day.” (This last is April 7; King was a governor of the U.S.V.I.—you can look it up!) And, confuting thirty-some years of my own assumptions, in Massachusetts “There is no mandate regarding what courses private schools shall teach”—including the suddenly mythical “mandatory” year of American history (which most colleges do “require” for admission, whether our Commonwealth tells us to teach it or not). On the other hand, many states require that students in high school and/or middle school study and pass tests on both the United States and their state constitutions, an idea which stirs an atavistic smile within my late, inner history teacher. (And before you smugly dismiss this old school fancy, please tell me how many of your students clearly understand the legislative, executive, and judicial operations of your state?)

Mostly, it’s just interesting to see where regulation burrows itself into the skin of independent school operations, and it is interesting to speculate on what systemic, practical, crisis-related, or purely notional motivations lie behind the odder regulations. In many places these rules make the tax code seem straightforward by comparison.

But then there is the more serious and often more visible and visceral sides of the issue—for example, the school’s stance as both a citizen and a “jurisdiction” in its own right. Where do the boundaries lie when a school wishes to enforce its own “good neighbor policy,” its rules relative to student behavior away from the campus, or in the virtual world where legal requirements—embodied in anti-(cyber)bullying statutes or anti-hazing laws—bind the school to some potentially very harsh realities. Such laws, multiplying as they are, are forcing schools to make difficult and often painful calls on matters where once they might have been safe in turning a blind eye or simply maintaining a firm distinction between things that happen in school or at “official school functions” and things that happen off campus?

And then there is case law, where independent schools have to consider issues ranging from “special education” to simple liability to athletic eligibility to food safety. Lawsuits spurious and serious shape our operations as well as our basic assumptions around “due diligence” and the fading—I am told—doctrine of in loco parentis. Criminal background checks—repeated at regular and specified intervals—are now absolute necessities, as is the practice of making clear to teachers the nature of their legal role as “mandated reporters.” There are and can be no shortcuts and no secrets—no “I promise not to tell”—where children’s welfare is concerned.

Regulation, where it does hit us, is really a very big deal, an elephant in every room we occupy. By and large we push ourselves—and are sometimes pushed—to do the right, or at least the legally prudent, thing, and by and large we make it work. Some among us may long for good old days (Were they, really, though? I think not so much, on the whole) before anti-bullying laws and the like, and we may grumble at the sometimes picayune level of effort that conforming entails, but schools must conform, in the end, not just because the laws and rules require it, but because we recognize and embrace the need to make school better—safer, happier, healthier—for kids.


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