Keep it Casual at Your Own Risk
Part of a “Common Pitfalls” Series
Many parents, without ever even contacting an attorney instinctively know: if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen. It seems like Special Education Advocacy 101 to document everything, and many parents have learned to keep careful record of anything important through emails or letters.
Similarly, many people know just from basic human interactions and experience that aggressive communication can shut down dialogue. In the school context, hostile or accusatory emails can get school employees’ guards up. When people are on the defensive, compromise is less likely because people dig in and do not want to give ground. Savvy parents who anticipate problems with their child’s school system know to send polite, non-threatening emails to document their concerns.
What some people don’t know or don’t think about, though, is that informal communication (that is, any casual correspondence you have with school staff), while seemingly harmless, can be just as dangerous as not documenting or as sending aggressive correspondence. Informal communication often happens before there is a problem. It is natural to want to be friends with your child’s teacher — after all, you want to have a good relationship with the person to whom you entrust your son or daughter’s care and education each day. Just as we tell our kids to be careful of what they post on social media, though, parents need to take care to not get too comfortable in the emails they send to school staff and avoid content that could be used to make the parent look bad in court. This includes, for example, references to drinking, gossip, or sharing inappropriate jokes.
Thus, it is important to remember that anything and everything you put in writing with school staff (emails, text messages, letters, handwritten notes – you name it!) could potentially be used against you in court later if your relationship with the school district breaks down. Even more concerning, other people in the school can and likely do have access to the emails you send your child’s teacher. Maybe they won’t see them right away, but if things break down between you and the school, the district can do a search of their email servers to compile everything you ever sent, and you do not want anything in those emails to reflect poorly on you. This is true even if you have continued to maintain a good relationship with the teacher you originally sent the emails to.
Follow these general guidelines for parent communication with school personnel to prevent problems down the road:
- Always assume someone else will read what you’re writing — whether it be the IT staff, the teacher’s supervisor, the principal, or a hearing officer in a due process hearing one day.
- Even if you have a personal email address for the teacher you are contacting, do not put something in writing you do not want anyone else to see.
- Keep it professional: emails should not be too casual or too emotional. Always proofread before you send.