The impact of a relationship breakdown affects the wider community and that includes the school a child is attending. The issue must be dealt with the utmost sensitivity because it is hugely traumatic for the children in the school’s care.
It is important for schools to bear in mind that even though the marriage or relationship may have broken down, the universal principle “once a parent always a parent” applies.
This article will examine specific issues that affect a school:
- Guardianship – and the rights this gives separated parents in the school context.
- The rights of both parents to consult with the school; attend parent teacher meetings and receive end-of-year reports.
- The involvement of teachers and principals in the family law court process.
Guardianship gives parents the right to have a say in the education of their children and the right to be involved.
In a marital situation, both parents are automatically joint guardians. This means both parents have a say and a right to be involved in their children’s education.
In a non-marital situation the mother is automatically legal guardian of the child and the father can be appointed guardian either by court order or by parental agreement.
Parental agreement is a joint statutory declaration made by the mother and father which states that the father is joint guardian with the mother. The father’s name on a birth certificate is not enough.
If a father in a non-marital situation has not been appointed guardian, he does not have the right to consult with the teacher, attend parent teacher meetings or receive school reports. Schools can request evidence of a parental agreement or court order conferring guardianship.
Once guardianship is not an issue, the school should accommodate both parents in the following:
- Consulting with teachers
- Attending parent teacher meetings – separately if necessary. If it is an issue, the school should do its best to facilitate a request for separate meetings.
- Sending end of year school reports to both parents
- Notifying parents of meetings
It is not necessary for schools to go to extraordinary lengths to duplicate normal arrangements but it is important that the school exercises good judgement in these matters and ensures that separated parents are not discriminated against.
As in all matters, the school’s focus should be the best interest of the child rather than on the circumstances of the marital or relationship breakdown.
School involvement in court proceedings:
School principals and teachers may find themselves subpoenaed to court or invited as an expert witness in family law cases.
A subpoena is a witness summons to attend court. Unless you receive a subpoena, you are not obliged to attend court. In fact, I would recommend that teachers/principals should not get involved unless subpoena is issued because:
- It gives you protection in that it indicates to all sides, including the judge, that you are not volunteering information and would not normally wish to be involved in the particular case.
- You may need to provide a copy of the summons to the Department to get paid leave of absence.
If you are subpoenaed to attend court you should only comment in relation to the child’s teaching/learning. Your comments should be very similar to what you would put in and end of year report and deal with such issues as:
- Test results
- General progress in your school
You may be asked by a solicitor acting on behalf of one parent to provide a report or statement about a child. Again, you are under no legal obligation to provide such a report and in fact we would urge caution in getting involved in such reports. If you provide such a report it may be used in family law proceedings and you may be called as a witness and cross-examined on your report.
If teachers are requested to provide such reports or attend court, the matter should be referred to the Board of Management.
Again, as with all matters of this nature, a clear policy should be in place in the school so that there is a consistent approach to this difficult issue.