The Impact of Child Custody Issues on School Safety (Part 1)

Developing appropriate school policies and following court orders and state laws can minimize your campus’ liability exposure as well as prevent child abuse, workplace violence and domestic violence.

Notice: This is part one of a two-part series on how school officials can address the child custody issues they could encounter on campus. Part 1 covers custody basics, and part 2 covers how these issues apply in cases where child abuse and/or domestic violence are suspected. This article contains educational information, not legal advice. Check with an attorney for case-specific policies and procedures and state laws.

In 2004 in Cleveland, Tenn., a man without physical custody of either his 6 year old son or his estranged wife’s 8 year old daughter signed both children out of school and left with them. A divorce was pending, and the custodial mother had previously told the school not to let the man leave with either child. School policy required a written reason for removing students and approval of the reason by the principal. The man wrote “keeping promise to mother” as the reason for taking his estranged wife’s daughter and “payback” as the reason for taking his son. The principal did not see or approve these reasons. The man went to his home, stabbed the children to death, poured gasoline on their bodies and set the house on fire. When police arrived, the man refused to put down the knife, charged a police officer and was killed.

School officials almost need a law degree to protect students. Sorting out the rights of single parent families, blended and non-traditional families and divorcing, separated and never married families is very difficult. Laws and regulations vary from state to state, but a few basic rules are useful in most situations. This terrible tragedy might well have been averted by following state law and a properly established school policy.

Campus officials making decisions involving their students will hear conflicting stories from various parties and the two parents. They will be privy to sensitive personal information from emotionally charged people. Circumstances will require an immediate decision and response.

Determining the Father Can Be Challenging

Many state laws define a parent as the father or mother of a child and a custodial parent as the parent who has been awarded physical custody of a child by a court. The non-custodial parent is typically defined as the parent who has not been awarded physical custody of a child by a court.

Related Article: New Web Portal Provides Expert Guidance on School Security

It is relatively easy to determine who is a child’s mother. A child’s birth certificate and a mother’s driver’s license and birth certificate along with legal documents proving any name changes of the mother, such as a divorce decree or marriage license, should suffice. Simply checking these documents will usually prevent women from wrongfully holding themselves out as a mother of a child and wrongfully taking a student.

In many situations a mother with sole physical and legal custody of a child will not have any written documentation or court order to prove her right to custody. The mother’s custody rights are often automatic.

In most situations, however, a father with sole or shared physical and legal custody of a child will have written documentation or a court order to prove he is the father and has custody rights to a child.

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People use the term “father” with ease and abandon. It is up to school staff to ask questions to determine if a man called “father” is an alleged, putative or biological father with no legal rights and responsibilities to a child, or a legal father with custody or parenting time rights.

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