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How I Handled...

Getting Caught in the Middle
Of Divorced Parents'
Custody Disputes


Often divorced parents bring their issues to the schoolhouse. Maintaining a sense of safety for the student, continuity for teaching and learning, and responding to the communication needs of both parents present challenges.

The Problem:

Mr. Jones and Ms. Smith are the unmarried parents of an eighth-grade daughter, Amanda. Early in the summer, Mr. Jones arrived to register Amanda for school. He indicated that while Amanda was just visiting for the summer from Texas, she would be living with him in the fall. Court records from Amanda's seventh grade school noted that Ms. Smith rather than Mr. Jones was the parent responsible for making educational and medical decisions for Amanda. We asked Mr. Jones to clarify with the courts who the responsible parent was; we indicated we'd gladly enroll Amanda as soon as we had documentation superseding the original paperwork in his daughter's school records. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Smith called to tell us that Mr. Jones did not have any right to enroll her daughter in our school.

Before the start of school, Mr. Jones delivered the court paperwork with an amended parenting plan and designation of the father as the individual responsible for Amanda's medical and educational decisions. The papers also noted that Ms. Smith was to have visitation rights on Wednesday evenings and alternate weekends. Amanda enrolled and is doing well in her classes.

This week, Ms. Smith showed up at school demanding to speak to Amanda's counselor, to visit each of Amanda's classes, to have lunch with Amanda, and to generally spend the day at school with her daughter. The mother is an articulate and persistent parent. Balancing the desire to communicate with parents with the school's need to follow procedures, our counselor and assistant principal spent time with Ms. Smith talking about Amanda's classes, sharing copies of the textbooks Amanda was using, and discussing her academic progress to date. We assured mom that she could tour the school with us after the end of the school day and offered to schedule a time for her to meet with each of Amanda's teachers. In disgust, Ms. Smith left without visiting the classes or eating lunch with her daughter.

The Solution:

We spoke with Amanda later in the day and told her of her mom's visit. We also explained to her the reasons why our school has a closed campus and why we discourage parents from popping in for lunch with their kids or popping in to see their classes.

The next day, Mr. Jones sent us a fax reiterating his belief that Ms. Smith is not authorized to remove Amanda from the school except for an emergency and only then after he and his current wife have been notified. He also sent a copy of a letter from Amanda's last school describing how campus police escorted Ms. Smith off school premises because of her frequent visits to her daughter's classroom and disruptive drop-in visits to the teachers.

Several issues are entwined in this example:

  • First, schools are by law responsible for ensuring the safety and welfare of their students. Parenting plans and custody documents tell schools who may or may not have contact with or remove a child from a school.
  • While the paperwork does not deny Ms. Smith the ability to know of her child's academic progress, the teacher's collective bargaining agreement gives teachers the right to 24 hours notice before a parent may enter their classroom to view instruction.
  • Additionally, the district's closed campus policy is designed to deter individuals from disrupting the teaching/learning atmosphere or the normal flow of the school day.

Since Ms. Smith didn't arrive on a Wednesday (a day when she could say it was her day to be with her daughter), the parenting plan did not give the school the authority to enable mom to eat lunch with her daughter.

The Reflection:

Even at the start of a busy school year, it is extremely important to review the files of the new students who have transferred to your school. Without a physical look through those documents, court orders or parenting plans may be overlooked. It is equally important for office staff and counselors to have a listing of which child's parents or guardians or other significant family members may not have access to the child. Otherwise, in our desire to be customer-service oriented and parent friendly, we may inadvertently enable activities to take place that should not happen at school.

Just because the courts say one parent has educational/medical rights over a child does not mean that the other parent is to be disenfranchised by the school. Offering the other parent the opportunity to receive school mailings or grade reports or even invitations to parent/teacher conferences -- with the knowledge of the other parent -- helps both parents stay involved. Bottom line for parents is that they both have a child who is receiving an education at our school. One of them has the authority to made decisions for that child. The other one needs to defer to that parent but can still communicate via appropriate channels in acceptable ways with the child's school.

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Six principals comprise our problem-solving team. This team of hard-working and reflective principals remains anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day. The series also illustrates the wide range of skills today's principals are required to possess. Two members of the team are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals.