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Education Law

A young person’s education is one of the most important resources that will affect their ability to succeed later in life. It is essential that students be provided a safe and adequate learning environment in order to set them up for success during and after these formative years. Unfortunately, issues often arise in the educational setting that may require legal action. At Cole Law, we understand how important it is to quickly and discreetly resolve legal issues in the educational context, such that a student’s learning is allowed to continue without significant interruption. Our team of passionate and experienced education law attorneys are devoted to resolving a variety of legal disputes that may arise in the school setting.

There are numerous local, state, and federal laws and regulations that govern the appropriate conduct in the educational environment. Federal laws are in place to govern issues in the school setting such as Title IX violations or sex discrimination, civil rights violations, First Amendment and due process constitutional concerns, accommodations for students with disabilities, and higher education issues such as affirmative action policies in enrollment decisions. State and local laws also apply to schools, including tort claims for issues that arise between students or between students and teachers, curriculum guidelines and regulations, and other violations of state or local policies governing conduct within schools. Other issues, such as those related to faculty employment disputes, may incorporate aspects of state or federal laws.

Local school boards oversee the school districts and are subject to the Tennessee Department of Education. Formal complaints may be filed through this bureaucratic hierarchy. In certain cases, it may be necessary to proceed straight to litigation in state court, or in federal court if constitutional violations or breaches of federal statutes have occurred. Other complaints against certain federally funded educational institutions may be submitted through the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Additionally, in Tennessee, certain components of education law, such as special education related issues or non-compliant school curriculums, have separate procedures to follow for legal violations. Often, there may be several applicable forums in which education law disputes may be resolved and multiple options for parties whose legal rights have been affected.

Bullying and Harassment

Sadly, disputes between students in schools are not uncommon. Often, bullying or harassment in the school setting can rise to the level of actionable legal claims. Bullying can take many forms, such as cyberbullying, discrimination, or even physical assault. While these sorts of claims usually arise between students, sometimes school faculty or administrators may engage in conduct that qualifies for an actionable civil tort claim, such as civil assault, battery, or intentional infliction of emotional distress. Schools themselves may also be liable for negligent hiring or supervision of faculty members who engage in such conduct.

School Discipline and Student Rights

Schools are often quick to hand out punishments to students for violating school rules. While public schools generally are within their rights to discipline students as they see fit, disciplinary procedures must still comport with applicable constitutional standards. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly noted that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.1 The Supreme Court has held that a student’s legitimate entitlement to a public education is a constitutionally protected property interest, protected by the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which cannot be taken away for misconduct without adherence to minimum constitutional procedures. Typically, this means at least receiving adequate notice of any disciplinary action and an opportunity for the student to be heard and give their side of the story. If your student has been suspended, expelled, or otherwise disciplined it is important to evaluate your options with an education law attorney.

First Amendment Rights

In addition to the constitutional right to due process of law, students in public schools also retain some of their rights to free speech and expression protected by the First Amendment. Often, students are disciplined in response to their free exercise of speech or expression within various educational institutions. Generally, students do have free speech rights while in school and may only be disciplined if their speech causes a substantial and material disruption to the school environment. What constitutes such a disruption is determined on a case-by-case basis and it is important to consult with an attorney if you feel that a student has been unfairly disciplined in response to exercising constitutional rights. Additionally, while student political speech or speech on controversial issues is generally protected, students may be disciplined for speech that is lewd or vulgar, that promotes illegal drug use, or that is school-sponsored.

Curriculum, Policy, and Compliance

Educational institutions are required to develop and implement policies, curriculums, and procedures that are in compliance with local, state and federal regulations. Particularly in Tennessee, public school curriculums for grades K-12 have strict regulations that must be followed in terms of what can and cannot be taught in the classroom. If you are a school seeking to develop policies and curriculums that are in compliance with legal guidelines, our team of Nashville education lawyers is here to assist in that process. Additionally, if you are a parent who believes that a school policy is not in keeping with applicable laws, or that something is being taught in your child’s school that shouldn’t be, it is important to consult with an education law attorney to better understand your options.

Teacher and Faculty Employment Issues

School employees, like in many other industries, often find themselves in disputes with their employers over matters related to employment contracts, tenure, dismissal, academic freedom, employment discrimination, and collective bargaining. While somewhat similar to other types of employment disputes, the school setting offers unique considerations that must be taken into account in making legal decisions related to employment practices. Our team of education law attorneys at Cole Law are conscientious of the unique circumstances of employment in the school setting and are available to assist in any negotiations or legal disputes, whether you are a school employee or employer.

Higher education and advanced academic institutions present additional legal considerations and issues. These may include issues such as enrollment disputes, challenges to admissions decisions, affirmative action policies, tenure disputes, academic misconduct, faculty-student relationships, and various contractual issues. If you are a higher education institution, student, or faculty member involved in issues relating to any of the above, our talented team of education law attorneys is available to help you understand any legal options available to you.

Title IX Compliance and Civil Rights

Title IX is designed to help achieve gender equity and prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions. Often, Title IX related disputes arise in the context of sexual harassment and sex discrimination. If you believe you have been discriminated against or harassed by an educational institution on the basis of your sex, you should consult with an education law attorney immediately. Additionally, educational institutions are similarly prohibited from violating the civil rights of students or faculty by discriminating on the basis of other constitutionally protected categories. Common civil rights claims brought against schools for civil rights violations include claims of racial discrimination, segregation, and unequal treatment by the school on the basis of a constitutionally protected class.

Special Education Law

Students with certain disabilities are entitled to special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is a law that makes free appropriate public education available to students with disabilities and ensures that those students receive special education and appropriate accommodations. The IDEA includes provisions for free appropriate education, appropriate evaluation, individualized education programs, ensuring the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities, parent participation in decision making, and procedural safeguards to protect student and parent rights. As a parent of a student with a disability, it is essential to understand the applicable laws to your child’s schooling.

There are numerous legal rights and obligations that can arise on a daily basis in the school setting. Whether you are a student, parent of a student, or school entity, Cole Law is available to help you navigate and resolve any education law disputes you may encounter. Cole Law attorneys are civil litigators and understand the complexities involved with the unique legal issues presented in the educational context. We represent students, parents of students, schools or other educational entities in all Tennessee state courts, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court.

If you believe you may have an education law matter that could warrant legal action, please do not hesitate to call us at (615) 490-6020 or send us a message through our website to schedule a confidential consultation where we can help you understand your options.

1 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 at 506 (U.S. 1969); Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., 141 S. Ct. 2038 at 2044 (U.S. 2021); see also Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 at 574 (U.S. 1975).

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