The burden of in loco parentis

Millburn High School, the top-ranked public high school in my home state, gained some notoriety a few days ago when parents complained about a hazing practice.  Apparently, for more than a decade, senior girls at Millburn High School made up a “slut list” that makes sexually explicit remarks about freshman girls of their picking. The list was then photocopied and distributed to the student body.

When the existence of this list came to light, parents were understandably upset.  The New York Times reported that, at the school board meeting last week, a father took the podium and addressed the school board emotionally:

The fact of the matter is, you guys have failed yourselves as board members, you’ve failed us as taxpayers and you’ve failed our kids by not protecting them, which is part of your job.

The rhetoric seemed a bit over-the-top to me at first.  (Are school board members really to blame for those types of infractions?  If a student assaults another on school grounds, do we say that the board members, or school officials, have failed somehow?)

I changed my mind yesterday, however, when I remembered the doctrine of in loco parentis while writing about the new Tufts sex policyIn loco parentis, Latin for “in the place of a parent,” is a doctrine that is often used to explain why primary and secondary schools have the legal authority to make rules and regulations that affect — in most cases curtail — the rights of the minor student.  Just as a parent has the right to allow or prohibit certain conduct in the best interest of the child, so a school has the authority and the discretion to do so in the best interest of the student.

In recent years, in loco parentis has been used largely to justify the power of the school — to search student lockers, to require its athletes to submit to drug tests, to enforce a dress code, or to prohibit certain types of speech or conduct.  At the heart of the doctrine, however, is a doctrine for a duty of care.  The students have been entrusted to the school, the teachers, and the administrators, who must look out for their interest.  The power of the school to regulate student conduct comes from their duty to ensure their safety and sound education.

I suspect that few laymen know of this legal doctrine, but the idea itself is intuitive and probably lies at the heart of many of our attitudes and beliefs about schools.   Which would explain the undertone of a feeling of betrayal and violation of trust that this parent expressed when his child was harmed at school.  Which also explains why all of Millburn’s school administrators have been required to undergo sensitivity training last week.

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One Response

  1. Greta,

    Have you seen this doctrine apply to prohibit middle school students from playing on the school yard AFTER SCHOOL? I’m trying to encourage my boys to exercise/play “more” and the school principal has “closed the campus” to all unsupervised after school use.
    The result is children getting no exercise and school facilities paid for with tax payer dollars being underutilized.

    Chris Noma

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