By Sandra L. Jacques, Esq., LL.M., Assistant Director of Legal Education
When it comes to professional development, Non-Certificated staff members receive very little, if any training. In many instances, these staff members, which typically include custodians, secretaries, clerks, lunchroom personnel, paraprofessionals, and the like, have no understanding of their legal limitations, responsibilities and obligations to the School District.
If any District staff member fails to do something required, or acts in a manner that is inappropriate in their capacity as an employee, the District becomes legally liable for the actions of its employees, who are legally considered “agents” of the District. Do these staff members understand their reporting obligations in a HIB Claim and that they can be accused of HIB? Has there been any discussion about the reality of District employees being accused of, and the District potentially being sued because of, Discrimination and Sexual Harassment allegations by other staff members and students? Have they heard of the “Pass the Trash” law (N.J.S.A. 18A:6-7.6-7.13)? Are they aware of their mandated reporting requirements as articulated in Exhibit “C” of the Memorandum of Agreement between the District and local law enforcement? (See https://www.nj.gov/education/safety/sandp/schoolsafety/docs/moa/LawMOAJanuary2019.pdf)
Do they understand their limitations under FERPA and the NJ Pupils Records Act (18A:36-19), and the First Amendment? It is likely that many of a District’s Non-Certificated staff live in the same town in which they work. Many have been asked by their friends, neighbors and other relatives to serve as their “eyes and ears” in the school, and to inform such people whenever the employee becomes aware of an issue. If a staff member shares any information with anyone that does not have a “legitimate educational interest”, they are in violation of Federal and State law. Does the staff member realize that they could be disciplined for “tipping off”, gossiping or venting to their friends about anything that the staff member only knows because they work for the District? Additionally, the staff member would not have a First Amendment defense in such a situation, as per the US Supreme Court Decision of Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968)? Most staff members do not realize that other Free Speech limitations apply to what a staff member can say or do in public, or post on their personal and private social media platforms.
Furthermore, employees need to understand the legally sound basis for the District to impose discipline, or even termination, for a staff members’ actions, both on or off of school grounds. Non-Certificated Supervisors need to understand the legally mandated “progressive discipline”, reporting requirements within the District, and required documentation for any instances of malfeasance. Under P.L. 2020, c.66 (8/13/2020):
- “Employees who are not teaching staff members (non-certificated staff) shall have the right to submit to binding arbitration (through the contractual grievance procedure) any dispute regarding whether there is just cause for a disciplinary action, including, but not limited to: reprimands, withholding of increments, termination or non-renewal of an employment contract, expiration or lapse of an employment contract or term, or lack of continuation of employment.”
- Additionally, “the ability to submit these matters to binding arbitration is irrespective of the reason for the employer’s action or failure to act, and irrespective of any contractual or negotiated provision or lack thereof. In the arbitration, the burden of proof shall be on the employer. Nothing in this section shall be regarded as affecting the right of any teaching staff member or majority representative to submit to binding arbitration any dispute involving or relating to a teaching staff member.”
In 2020, the New Jersey Department of Education recently released updated requirements on staff professional development that should be carefully reviewed by all school districts. Many of the new requirements apply to all staff, including non-certificated staff members. In 2020, the NJDOE also released guidance on addressing equity through professional learning that outlines important considerations for professional learning for non-certificated staff members that should also be carefully reviewed.
Accordingly, if any employee exercises their rights under this law, there will be litigation costs to the District, as well as time required of other employees and possibly students, to participate in the Arbitration and possible lawsuit for alleged inappropriate actions of the District. Providing professional development on the aforementioned issues, and many others, to Non-Certificated staff, is a proactive action to lessen the possibility of legal claims against the District, and an attempt to mitigate the time and personnel expense of litigation.