June 2, 2010

Reasons You Could be Disciplined, Fired, or Sued

By: in Faculty Development

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A parent calls you to ask how her son is doing in your class. Her son, a first-year student, began the semester well but recently started missing class and turning in assignments late. The mother says she’s worried about him and wants to know if he’s showing up for class, how his grades are, and if he will pass your class.

She also tells you that she’s “read up on FERPA,” so she knows that there’s a dependent exception and proceeds to email you a copy of her tax form proving his dependent status. “Besides,” she says, “I’m his mother, I’m paying for his education, so I have a right to know.”

What’s the best way to respond?

This is just one of the scenarios played out in the recent online video seminar Law 101 for Faculty Members: How Not to Get Sued. During the 90-minute seminar higher education attorneys Brett A. Sokolow, J.D. and W. Scott Lewis, J.D. explained the appropriate responses for navigating legal landmines in the classroom, such as dealing with pushy parents, ADA and Section 504 issues, negligence, faculty confidentiality myths, academic freedom and first amendment matters, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and bullying.

FERPA, which stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, is a federal law that governs the privacy of a student’s educational records. An educational record is anything that personally identifies a student that is kept in a written or recorded medium by college officials. It also includes anything that could easily lead to the personal identification of a student.

FERPA has changed the way professors post grades, return assignments, interact with parents – even the casual conversations they have with colleagues about their students. In the case study of the mother who called asking for information on her son’s grades and attendance, the best course of action is to refer the parent to the Registrar — considered the “FERPA gatekeeper” on campus, or to the professor’s dean or department head, if that is the campus policy. Responding directly to the parent can place the professor in a tricky situation for two reasons: the parent may expect all professors to follow suit, and the parent may begin calling you on a regular basis since you were so helpful the first time.

Students with disabilities
Another scenario presented during the seminar dealt with a professor who has a student in his 9:00 a.m. class with a diagnosed disability. The student is registered with the Disability Support Service Office (DSSO) on campus. Per her request for accommodation, she took the first exam of the course at the DSSO office. The professor later learns that, due to proctor availability, she didn’t take the test until noon (three hours after her classmates).

For the second exam, the professor decides to create a special version of the test (Test “D”) for her to take at the DSSO office. This test was not multiple choice and true/false (as were versions A, B, and C given in class), but was short answer and fill in the blank. The student and her mother contact DSSO to complain that the professor violated her rights by giving her a “harder” test.

Did this professor handle the situation properly?

“We’re seeing more and more the intersection of academic integrity issues and disability issues and I think that this is a great example where we’re coming from the right place – in that we want to provide someone with accommodations that level the playing field and give them every opportunity to do as well on the exam as everyone else, but doesn’t afford them an opportunity to take advantage of accommodations or use the accommodations to commit some sort of academic integrity violation,” says Sokolow.

However, he noted, a better approach might be to make two multiple-choice versions of the test, and use both versions in class. That way, the professor can randomly select one of the two versions to give to a student who takes the test at a later time.

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