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School Law Guide: Introduction

Introduction (Subject)

This Research Guide was designed to cover legal issues that commonly arise in the area of School Law. School Law encompasses everything from pre-school to four year universities and beyond. This Research Guide will only cover kindergarten through high school, commonly referred to as K-12. Covering K-12 will allow for this guide to touch on most of the issues that an attorney in this area would deal with on a regular basis. But within the school system almost any type of legal issue can take place. This guide is intended to give attorneys a starting point for those issues, regardless of what type of school law they are practicing. Public school systems have lots of their own terminology and acronyms; this guide provides resources and a base for new people in the field to understand typical language used in the school law field. Further, this guide is geared towards attorneys in non-litigation heavy positions. Many attorneys in the school law field counsel and guide teachers, schools districts, and other personnel, on how to work within the boundaries of the law. Attorneys that are more litigation based would likely find this guide less helpful. The term school law and education law will be used interchangeably in this guide, but refer to the same field.

Within the School Law field there are four different angles that can be taken, based upon who an attorney is representing. All of the resources and information provided in this guide will be relevant to all four areas.

First, there are attorneys that represent teachers. In Missouri, legal representation for teachers largely comes from the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) and the Missouri branch of the National Education Association (MNEA). Both of these organizations provide legal consultation to members through telephone hotlines and school visits.

The second area within the field of School Law, attorneys represent school districts. Larger and wealthier school districts have in-house counsel, but most districts hire outside law firms for representation. There are many large law firms in Saint Louis and Kansas City that have Education Law departments. These attorneys handle complaints from parents, students, and teachers, as well as advise school districts on appropriate legal conduct.

The third area attorneys practice in involves the representation of students and parents. A teacher’s or schools district’s conduct can often result in law suits being filed by students and/or parents. School districts may not be meeting the disability needs of a student, or may not be following state or federal curriculum guidelines, and thus failing to give a student a free and appropriate legal education, to which they are entitled.

Finally, as you probably already gathered, there is the regulation side of school law. Schools are heavily regulated at the local, state, and federal level. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and the United States Department of Education (USDOE) are two of the many government agencies that regulate schools. Minimum length of the school day, length of a school year, certification for teachers and other school staff, curriculum requirements, access for the disabled, and accommodations for children with special needs are some of the many regulations schools must be weary of. Governmental agencies, other organizations, and attorneys in the field at large work to create, comply, and enforce these laws and regulations.

Student Guide Author

This guide was originally created by Scott Smith in support of Professor Diamond's Advanced Legal Research class for Spring 2014. The contents of this guide should not be taken as legal advice or as the work product of MU Law librarians.

Research Strategy

Often times when a party comes to an attorney with a complaint it can be difficult to know who to blame. Teachers work for the school district, the school district answers to the school board, which is part of the state. Further, all of these entities are attempting to follow local, state, and federal guidelines. Before getting overwhelmed with statutes and regulations, parse out the alleged legal violation. This might be a teacher complaining about the work environment, which would require investigation into their employment contact and other employment law concepts. You might be faced with a complaint from a student about the education they are receiving, which could mean the teacher or school district is not properly fulfilling their legal obligations. The list is almost endless, and this guide will provide resources that will enable you to determine what laws or regulations are relevant to a particular matter.

Once the problem has been defined, the attorney will need to determine if local, state, or federal law comes into play. Looking at the attorneys I have worked with, issue spotting what level of government is involved comes with practice. There could be a constitutional violation or a simple tort. The difficulty comes when trying to determine if federal or state law comes into play. However, many federal statues, like the Individuals with Disables Education Act (IDEA) or the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), are already familiar to you. Maintaining up to date information on school law and policies is especially important, which is why current awareness tools are extensively covered in this guide. But often times federal and state laws overlap in this field, so it just becomes a matter of what avenue is best for your client.

Once you have determined who the wrongdoer is and what area of law is relevant, (local, state, or federal), you should turn to free online sources to begin your research. Federal and state agencies often publish useful quick guides to outline the basics of relevant regulations. Further, for major federal law such as the ADA or NCLB, there are websites outlining the key issues and qualifications for those laws to become relevant. MSTA and NEA have frequently asked question sections and other resources on their website to help anybody become familiar with teacher contracting issues and other employment issues. Exhausting these free online resources is the first step to answering any legal question, and sometimes the only step you will need to take if it is a simple issue. Most of these resources can be found using Google, and are free to the public. This guide will focus almost exclusively on secondary resources, including free online websites, and how they can advance your legal research.

After exhausting free online resources you should check your local law library. The law library has a variety of books in print that focus on certain aspects of education law. These sources, just like the ones online, will give you more information on the language of the field and laws that typically come into play. Using current awareness tools is another cheap and quick way to familiarize yourself on different subject matter.

Once you have used all of your free secondary sources you can do one of a couple different things. You can go straight to a state or federal statute that you may think is relevant. Sometimes reading a statute is all you need to guide clients on where the law stands. You can find black letter law by using a standard Google search if you use the correct language. Thereafter, you can consult secondary resources like the Bender treatise that may provide good insight. If the legal issue is more complex case law research may be necessary. For attorneys that are more litigation based, they will likely jump to case law research sooner than others.

Even if you know the relevant statute it will usually be helpful to consult a secondary resource first.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal legislation is often times hundreds, if not thousands, of pages long. Secondary sources can jump start your search by showing you exactly where you need to go.