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Lawlines: Make It Your Policy to Have a Policy

By Wayne Young posted 04-19-2021 12:23

The universe of school law is made up of constitutional provisions, court decisions, statutes, regulations, and policies. Of these various school law resources, I would take the position that policies are, at the same time, the most neglected, the least understood, and the most important.

Kentucky school districts have books full of policies. Local board policies are necessary because the state and federal level legal framework described above is full of gaps, and does not do a good job of addressing the day-to-day operational work of school districts. Kentucky's school leaders are blessed because our colleagues at the Kentucky School Boards Association (KSBA) do a tremendous job of drafting and updating local school district policies. Consulting and implementing these polices is a daily occurrence in every district in our state.

But the policy structure in local districts can sometimes go well beyond the scope of this valuable service from KSBA. Some districts may need a particular policy not typical of other districts, or may require other types of policy customization. SBDM councils also have policies, and even school activities and organizations (band, clubs, athletic teams) can have policies specific to their specific function.

While it is impossible - and even unnecessary - to have a policy on everything that could ever happen, it is important to have policies on matters that tend to occur regularly, or are likely to be delicate or problematic when they occur. Selection of the valedictorian; dress codes for staff; rules for members of the baseball team; and behavior expectations for overnight school travel are all examples of things that lend themselves to putting in place sound policy provisions.

In areas where some policy guidance would be helpful for both students and staff, here are some tips to create an effective and defensible policy structure:
  • Policies should be written - it is important to be able to share them with parents, students and staff, rather than merely hoping they somehow become acquainted with the policies. Unwritten policies are subject to misinterpretation and inconsistent communication.
  • Make policies clear and specific - vague polices are often ineffective and unenforceable. "No player shall engage in conduct that reflects badly on the team" is a lousy policy. Students need to be able to determine what is behaviors are permitted and prohibited.
  • Communicate policies to students and staff in advance of their application - this is a due process issue. Students and staff cannot be held accountable to rules that have not been communicated to them in advance of their enforcement. Making policies on the fly or after the fact is not sound practice.
  • Policies must be reasonable - policies must have some connection to the activity and reasonable in their scope. "Staff members may not wear green socks" would be arbitrary and unreasonable. 
  • Enforce policies consistently - a policy which is not consistently enforced are really not policy at all, and students and staff can rightly question why it is being enforced in their particular case.
  • Amend policies over time - policies can become outdated or be found to be ineffective or inadequate. Adjust them as necessary.
School districts and schools can and should have policies on important matters impacting school and staff. Adhering to a few best practices will make the policy experience far more effective.