School districts frequently receive complaints in a variety of forms, and they can come from students, parents, employees and members of the public. When complaints are received, it is important for school leaders to consider what actions are appropriate.
Much depends on the nature of the complaint. Does the complaint allege bullying? (If so, alert the school’s DASA coordinator.) Does the complaint allege discrimination? (If appropriate, alert the district’s Title IX coordinator.)
Three questions should be considered in response to any complaint:
- What district policies are implicated?
- What laws are implicated?
- What, if any, interim actions need to be taken to ensure the safety or well-being of a student or employee involved in the complaint?
In general, school officials should take all complaints seriously and ensure that any relevant information about the complaint is neither destroyed nor deleted. Failing to preserve information or evidence can negatively affect an investigation of the complaint and, in some cases, result in liability to the district.
Virtually all complaints, big and small, require school officials to do some form of inquiry to determine whether the allegations are credible and what kind of response would be appropriate. In certain cases, a formal investigation is appropriate, (e.g., allegations that are easily recognizable as involving a potential violation of a law or a serious violation of school policy).
School district officials should address several questions before commencing a formal investigation. First, identify who should conduct the investigation. In cases where criminality may be involved, school officials should contact law enforcement. Otherwise, the investigation may be performed in-house by a district administrator or staff member or through outside legal counsel. It all depends on the nature of the complaint, the specific allegations and the possibility of future legal action.
Second, the appropriate investigator must define the scope of the investigation. This includes gathering and preserving relevant information, such as emails, computer data, surveillance tapes, policies, memos, timecards, personnel files, student files, notes and any other materials that may be relevant to the allegations.
Third, the investigator must develop a plan for the investigation. For instance, the investigator must determine which witnesses will be interviewed and in what order, as well as where the witness interviews will take place. The investigator must also determine whether there are any interim measures that should be taken to protect students or employees from future discrimination and/or retaliation.
The goal of any investigation should be to gather as much information as possible. This means that the allegations need to be addressed head-on and adequate time must be spent with each witness. Thereafter, the investigator must review and analyze all relevant evidence obtained through the course of the investigation to render findings and recommendations.
State or federal agencies may be involved in certain complaints (see stories below):
- Office of Civil Rights receives record number of complaints
- Purview of NYS Division of Human Rights includes school districts and BOCES
Depending on the visibility or nature of the complaint, districts may need to consider creating and issuing a statement to the school community. Any statement should be brief and to the point. It should include enough information to convey that the district is aware of the complaint and is taking the appropriate action to protect students and employees. Prior to issuing any public statement, districts should consult with their attorney or public relations team. Only designated spokespeople should make public statements.
The importance of conducting a prompt, thorough and effective investigation cannot be overstated. While many cases can be handled internally at the school or classroom level, district officials should not hesitate to consult their school attorney as well as the district’s insurance carrier when serious allegations arise.
Members of the New York State Association of School Attorneys represent school boards and school districts. This article was written by Luisa D. Bostick and Lindsay A. Menasco of Hodgson Russ, LL