In Loco Parentis & Student Rights

The Freechild Project has a webpage that provides a comprehensive scan of student rights – or the lack thereof – in schools. We regularly recieve email from concerned students, parents, and even teachers across the US. Today a parent wrote looking for advice about a situation at her child’s school. She emailed with details about how her daughter, a 4th grade student, was denied access to her school’s restroom during class. As a consequence, the daughter urinated in her seat.

Addressing this as a “rights” situation is difficult, so after the usual disclaimer about not providing professional or legal advice, I shared my thoughts. Following is the response that I emailed:

You took the right step by speaking to a professional outside of the school setting (your family couselor). Then you spoke with the principal – another right step. What the principal told you probably is right – there are likely no laws that address students’ right to use the restroom.

Unfortunately, the United States is regressive enough to believe that children should not have specific rights of their own; rather, our nation accords rights to the parents, guardians, and plethora of other adults who are involved in the lives of children. An implicit excuse for that would stem from the (mis)belief many adults have about children’s incapacity to make informed decisions about their own lives.

Consequently, laws compel adults to act on behalf of children, and do not compel them to seek children’s input or consent. That is an issue in many settings; however, it is a real problem in schools. What almost all state laws say is that schools have the responsibility to act “in loco parentis”, or in place of parents. That means that when students have needs they need addressed in schools, any official within the school so deemed responsible has the authority/responsibility/right to DO YOUR JOB for you – not to mention that they also have the “right” to take any responsibility from your child that whether or not you want your child to have that responsibility.

After that point I went on to explain how to “manipulate the levers” of beauracracy and democracy in the education system in order to get the ends she (the parent) was seeking. But I think the critical thing that arose in my mind during this email were the following connections:

  • In loco parentis assumes parents do not have the capacity (either mental ability, time, energy, or willingness) to make decisions – trivial or otherwise – about their children in schools.
  • Adultism is reinforced through the institutionalized mechanisms of the education.
  • There is a connection between in loco parentis and adultism, and perhaps that is the discriminatory nature of both. The danger to acknowledging adultism in school is the tendency of educators to practice juenism, or romanticizing students over adults.
  • Educators are then placed in the unjust position of disenfrachising one or both parties; however, the beauracratic/democratic nature of the education system generally does not offer alternatives that can suit all parties concerned – particularly students themselves.

I think these are interesting thoughts… let me know what you think.

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