Equity, Legal Liability, and Politics: The Role of School Leaders in Navigating Dangerous Waters

Posted · Add Comment

A parent gets up at a school board meeting with a petition in hand, signed by dozens of parents, attempting to “opt out” of any aspect of the curriculum that is inconsistent with their family values or makes their child feel uncomfortable. A student goes to the microphone and alleges that the school district is “out of control” and “everyone” is being bullied, and points to comments posted by some parents and students on social media as “evidence” of the school being out of control. Finally, a board member publicly comments that he is hearing “in the community” that the school principal is “out of touch” with what is happening in a particular school.

Across our State, and nation, public schools have been pushed to the forefront of a much larger societal debate for hearts and minds, with schools being pressured to take various positions, or remain silent, on issues related to race, gender identity, sex education, climate change and other “hot button” topics. This is on top of the devastating impact of a global pandemic on mental health and wellness and the deterioration of social skills for students and adults alike. But this debate also has major implications for school districts’ bottom line, and could increase potential legal exposure in many ways. 

Schools are being accused, among other things, of teaching “Critical Race Theory” and demonizing our nation’s forefathers, trying to pressure students into “becoming” gay or transgender, and encouraging sexual promiscuity. School board meetings have become a vehicle for promoting conspiracy theories and the spread of misinformation and disinformation. For some, social media has become an echo chamber for those already convinced that our schools have some nefarious agenda that must be fought. 

All of this has left many educators and school leaders feeling exhausted, distrusted and unable to focus on the challenges of supporting our students in the aftermath of a global pandemic. Worse yet, this politically charged environment has created perverse incentives for schools to “fly under the radar,” avoid “controversial” topics or appease the loudest voices.

Of course, avoidance and appeasement are not possible if public schools are going to work to fulfill their legal obligations to infuse discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the curriculum, and their overriding mission to empower our youth to be fully engaged as responsible and contributing citizens in our increasingly diverse, democratic society. Not only will those strategies deny our students access to a robust, challenging and legally required educational experience, it will significantly increase the potential for discriminatory views and practices to take hold, and ultimately lead to significant legal exposure and potential liability for school districts.

So what can be done? Everyone involved in our public schools has a crucial role to play, including students, parents, educators, school leaders and community leaders. In this newsletter we will focus on the role of school business administrators and other school leaders. First, school business administrators and other school leaders need to understand key legal principles that are often misunderstood. Second, it is critical to focus on the role of business administrators, superintendents, principals and other school leaders in addressing misinformation, disinformation, threats, and the improper actions of other stakeholders, and take proactive steps to build trust and understanding in the community.

In two companion articles, we review the emerging legal landscape on equity and schools and offer specific steps that can be taken by school business officials and other administrators to promote support for diversity, equity, and inclusion.