Student Information and Divorced Parents

By Jessica Sherrill

taff attorneys for state school boards associations receive tons of calls from school board members and administrators asking for legal guidance. Answering the phone is like Forrest Gump’s quote about a box of chocolates: “You never know what you’re going to get.” Some of my favorite types of calls deal with parents. Can dad’s girlfriend pick up the student from school? Can we give grandma information about classroom behavior? Mom is coming to have lunch with her child every day, and it’s becoming a problem. What can we do?

When it comes to parents, it’s important to keep the following in mind: Who are the parents? Are mom and dad together? Married? Separated? Are stepparents involved? Other relatives? Are parental rights terminated? Have the parents said in writing that others can be “in the know” about their child? The last thing you want is to find your school district in the middle of a family dispute. With many complicated family situations, it’s wise to talk to your retained legal counsel for advice.

Generally speaking, if the parents are together and/or married, you likely won’t see as much conflict about educational decisions. If they are not together, then you might be dealing with stepparents, significant others, or other family members. So, who gets the final say?

You’ll want to have copies of certain documents on file at school:

• Birth certificate

• Most recent custody arrangement or court order, which could be a divorce decree

• Guardianship order, if applicable

• Order terminating parental rights, if any

Using these documents, you should be able to determine who has custody of the student, who is authorized to make educational decisions, and who is allowed to visit or have access to the student.

Know that both parents, custodial and noncustodial, have equal access to the student and the student’s educational records unless the court has decided otherwise. In other words, unless a parent’s rights are terminated -- no matter who has custody and who has visitation -- both parents have equal access to the student and his or her records at school.

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