The Need for Cyber Law Research in Education

Cyber law in education is an issue that is ripe for scholarly research and analysis.  The importance of this topic is growing exponentially with the meteoric rise in social networking and other online forums which are becoming a primary source of interaction among school aged students. One result of these “virtual” relationships is a blurring of the lines of jurisdiction for disciplinary responsibility. At what point do a student’s actions fall outside of the authority of his or her school? When the student uses school equipment on school grounds the analysis is very clear, but case law has created a continuum that defies any objective definition of where that jurisdiction ends. Similarly, at what point does a teacher or administrator’s actions leave the authority of their employer and become protected by their right to privacy? The question of jurisdiction must be addressed before meaningful processes can be implemented to counteract the damage that online actions can have on the school system.

The harms that are caused at the hands of students through cyber actions include marring the reputation of teachers and administrators, harassing other students and threatening the security of testing and other educational information. Similarly, educators often cause harm through their own cyber actions by using online forums in an inappropriate manner to the detriment of their school or district. These actions may compromise the safety and morals of their students and affect the integrity of the educational system itself. Yet any restriction on these actions runs the risk of violating constitutional rights of free speech and privacy. Needless to say, there is a careful and ever-evolving balancing process that needs to be maintained in this area of law. And the decisions of our courts and enactments of our legislatures must be monitored and influenced by educators and education law experts.

The bullying laws that are springing up in local legislatures provide an excellent example of the issues at stake in this field. There is an important responsibility for governments to protect children from this new form of harassment. At the same time, however, in addition to the inevitable first amendment challenges, educators need to have a voice as to the practical limits on building level school personnel in implementing these new laws. These issues present a fascinating intersection of legal issues that will only become more relevant and topical in the decades to come. 

Research and analysis will be important in normalizing policy in the field. Ultimately statutory enactments and case decisions will  provide the law on these subjects.  However, these statutes and decisions are by no means immutable.  Like any other area of law, they evolve and change over time.  And these shifting principles are all the more prevalent in a field of law that is in its infancy such as this one.  There are no long-standing seminal court decisions on the topic, nor is there any conventional wisdom with respect to a proper statutory framework.  Therefore, in this field more than any other that I can think of within education law, there is a need for scholarly research and publication to help organize and shape the developing legal trends.

Special Education Law – Overview

Many of us, who went to school not that long ago, remember that being a special needs student meant riding to school in a separate bus and attending one class with other children of varying disabilities. These classes resembled more of a day care than school, and even the most advanced students had little hope of receiving a high school diploma, let alone attend college. Since that time, the term disability, and special needs student, has expanded to encompass much more than a person with an IQ below a certain arbitrary standard. What I have attempted to do in my first article is to give a little history of the evolution of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

In 1954 the United States Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) which found that segregated schools were a violation of equal protection rights. It would be another twenty years before this concept was applied to children with handicaps, especially learning disabilities, trying to receive an education. In fact, shortly after Brown was decided the Illinois Supreme Court found that compulsory education did not apply to mentally impaired students, and as late as 1969, it was a crime to try to enroll a handicapped child in a public school if that child had ever been excluded.

Due to court challenges in Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia in the early 1970’s things started to change. In 1975 Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. This was the first law that mandated that all handicapped students had a right to an education. Not only did it mandate that all handicapped students had a right to an education, it also mandated that local educational agencies could be held accountable for not doing so. Shortly thereafter, the term handicapped was replaced with “child with a disability”. Although revised in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the most comprehensive changes came in 1997. This law required schools to identify children with disabilities to make sure that all children have available a “free appropriate public education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living” 20 U.S.C. ยง 1401 (d). Unfortunately, the most recent changes in 2004 made the law slightly more difficult to receive the benefits they deserve, which, depending upon the next administration and the make up of Congress may or may not be a trend that will be followed in the future.

Exactly what is a “free appropriate public education”? Under the law, it is defined as “special education and related services that (A) have been provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge: (B) meet the standards of the State educational agency; (C) include an appropriate preschool, elementary or secondary school education in the State involved; and (D) are provided in conformity with the individualized education program required under [the law].” In other words, the school must provide services that meet the needs of a child with a disability that may affect their ability to learn. These “related services” can be services that are provided in the classroom, such as giving the child extra time to finish taking tests. They can also encompass services that can be provided outside of the classroom, such as tutoring, or having the child attend either a day or residential program outside of the school, along with transportation.

For the historical data, I relied on Wrightslaw: Special Education Law by Peter W. D. Wright and Pamela Darr Wright and Special Education Law in Massachusetts by Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education.

Education Law – What You Need to Know

If you’re involved in any aspect of education, from teaching to recruitment, then you’ll need to be aware of education law, and the areas it covers.

1. Education establishments are just accountable as other organisations, and need to adhere to rules and guidelines in the same way.

2. You’ll need to make sure that your school, college, university or other educational establishment complies with all the relevant laws and government policies. Having an education law expert to help you will make a big difference, and can ensure that you’re not acting illegally.

3. You’re probably used to dealing with suppliers for everything from catering and stationery to IT and the maintenance of the grounds. Are you using a specialist in education law to make sure that the contracts art legal, and that you’re getting the best deals and service?

4. Pupil discipline is becoming more of an issue in many schools. Although to may be tempting to introduce your own forms of punishment, you’ll need to make sure that you stay well within the law, to avoid possible disciplinary action yourself.

5. Some schools, colleges and universities receive charitable donations or funding. You’ll need to make sure that all the paperwork is in order that everything complies with the relevant charity laws.

6. If you’re involved in estate management for as school or college, then your job could entail buying or selling land, and hiring contractors. You’ll want to make sure that you get the best deals and service, and that agreements are adhered to minimize disruption to all concerned.

7. Although you work in education, construction, planning and environmental laws still apply. If you’re considering expanding your premises, or building new departments or adding additional facilities, you’ll need to make sure that you’ve got the relevant planning permission and your plans don’t fall foul of any laws.

8. Employment law still applies, so you’ll want to make sure that there are no issues regarding bullying or harassment at work, or discrimination on any grounds. You’ll need to make sure that you’re up to date with all relevant guidelines and changes, so that you’re not acting illegally.

9. Your recruitment process will also be subjected to the same sort of laws as other industries. You might need to carry out additional checks too, so an education law expert can prove invaluable.

10. Health and Safety both at school, and on educational trips, is often mentioned in the media. No matter whether you think the rules and regulations are too strict, you still have to comply with them in order to protect your pupils and staff.

Now you know more about it, perhaps now is the time for an Education Law Expert to help you.