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Students Are Suing Their (Private) Schools More Than Ever

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 05, 2016 6:59 AM

Litigation against schools is nothing new. A dispute over school funding in Kansas, for example, has been going on for 27 years -- and it's currently threatening to upend the state's school system. The classic civil rights triumph, Brown v. Board of Ed., was, of course, about public education.

But for private schools, numbering over 30,000 and serving more than 5 million students, litigation has been rarer. And when it occurred, it was often the result of contract or employment disputes. That's no longer the case, however. The newest legal trend in private school litigation is student-led suits, as private school pupils lawyer up over disability, discrimination, and discipline disputes.

Earning an A+ in Litigation

Many public school systems have established and complex disciplinary systems. In New York City schools, for example, a student facing suspension for more than five days has the right to an administrative hearing with witnesses, evidence, and occasionally lawyers. In private schools, the discipline system is often more ad hoc.

But litigation might be changing that. Private school lawyers report that students are increasingly challenging the outcomes and procedural fairness of disciplinary decisions. They're demanding the sort of court-like protections that their public school peers may be afforded.

And when schools aren't facing student-led action over discipline, they may face lawsuits over disabilities and discrimination. Private schools with strapped budgets may struggle to provide suitable accommodations for students with disabilities.

(More than 80 percent of private school students attend religious schools. These institutions are often run on much smaller budgets than their private school compatriots face at Choate or Brearley.)

And That's Just the Start

And those are just a few of the legal issues primary and secondary private schools face. When it comes to colleges, higher education is quickly becoming a heavily regulated industry. New Title IX requirements are imposing stronger requirements on universities and colleges, for example, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act has created new privacy rights for students, rights that sometimes clash with a school's security, health, or discipline interests.

These are just some of the developments identified in Legal Trends Shaping Private Schooling: Leading Lawyers on Preventing Discrimination, Addressing Criminal Incidents, and Ensuring Student and Faculty Safety, published by Thomson Reuters' Aspatore. (Disclosure: Aspatore is one of FindLaw's sister companies.) Part of the Inside the Minds series, this book brings together top practitioners to discuss issues facing private schools -- from student lawsuits, to transgender student rights, to financial issues and data privacy. If you're interested in the way law is changing the educational industry, it's a textbook worth adding to your reading list.

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