How Schools Should Protect Students from Child Custody Disputes

Having thorough visitor management processes and a staff that is well-versed in understanding child custody paperwork are just two ways to ensure children are safe while in school.

How Schools Should Protect Students from Child Custody Disputes

The most common issue many schools see surrounding child custody disputes is access to school records.

Joint physical custody is especially complicated because court documents typically spell out the specific days and times each parent has physical custody. If one parent tries to pick up a student on a day they do not have physical custody, they are legally not allowed to remove their child from the school.

For more information and real-life examples of the different types of child custody, click here.

Every family situation is different. Always ask questions if there is any confusion as to what rights each parent has and be sure to keep records of actions related to custody cases to limit liability.

Best Practices for Late Check-ins, Drops-Offs and Early Releases

A third effective way to avoid potential issues involving non-custodial parents is to implement comprehensive protocols for signing out students.

Many schools are currently using online Student Information Systems (SIS) to manage student data.

“When an adult comes to pick up a child, that person must be checked against the information in the SIS,” says Grace. “Until your office staff is familiar with all the parents, the parent must produce a valid ID to confirm their identity.”

A log must also include information on when the student was checked out and by whom. Grace suggests using a visitor management system that captures a photo of the visitor’s ID as part of the sign-in process.

Parents Sue Texas School District for Requiring Visitors to Show Identification

In 2010, parents filed a lawsuit against the Lake Travis Independent School District in Austin, Texas. The school district requires all visitors to show an ID before being admitted to a secured area of a school.

The couple cited violations of their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and their Fourteenth Amendment substantive-due-process right to direct the upbringing of their children. On Aug. 18, a federal district judge ruled in favor of the school district, according to Education Week.

“The crux of the plaintiffs’ claims is their belief they possess a constitutional right to be physically present with their children in the classroom to supervise their children’s education,” said U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks. But there is no substantive due-process right of a parent to access all areas of her child’s school, the judge upheld.

Many visitor management system developers are also adding check-in and check-out procedures that help make a school’s front office more efficient, says Sigrist. For example, when a student arrives late to school, some systems generate an “Admit to Class” slip. When a student is signed out early, some systems generate an “Out of Building” slip.

“A best practice is for a school to keep track of all visitors and the purpose of their visit,” Sigrist says. “This can range from a parent dropping off an instrument a child left in the car to a visit with the principal. Visitors should have a purpose to be in the building and are generally there because of a teacher or administrator request. In other words, they should be with that staff member.”

Schools must also thoroughly keep track of student attendance each day. Grace recalls an event he says was his district’s wake-up call to the importance of student accountability and implementing thorough attendance protocols. In 2000, 11-year-old fifth-grader Antonio Davalos was strangled by a man in his grandmother’s home.

“Sadly, many kids at the time [said they saw] Antonio at school that day. However, the truth was he never showed up since he was killed at his home that morning,” says Grace. “There were many things wrong with our accountability processes because we could not be sure that he never showed up at the school.”

All Visitors Must Wear Identification Badges

Another effective way to ensure thorough visitor management is to require all visitors to wear an identification badge, no matter how familiar they are with the school or how familiar office staff members are with them.

“School buildings must create a culture where if someone is walking around the building without a visitor’s badge, both staff and students should ask if he or she needs assistance, or let someone know that there’s an unidentified subject in the building so he or she can be identified and given the proper assistance,” says Collier.

What Can Parents Do to Help Keep Children Safe at School?

Aside from providing the necessary custodial paperwork and keeping schools informed of any changes, there are other things K-12 administrators and security personnel can encourage parents to do to help keep their children safe in school.

Grace encourages parents to be cautious when discussing routines and holiday plans with others.

“On the last two days of school before breaks and holidays, I would suggest the family do early pickups,” he says. “That is, leave an hour or more early. It is important for the family to vary routines.”

Varying routines is a good way for a student’s whereabouts to remain unpredictable should there be concern for non-custodial parent interference. Refraining from social media communications is another effective way to ensure the safety of a child.

Parents are also encouraged to take an up-to-date picture of their child, including both a headshot and full length.

“This may sound morbid, but let’s just say if the other person was successful in kidnapping the child, this information would be very helpful,” says Grace.

Discussing with a child what he or she should do if a kidnapping situation were to develop is also important.

“Make sure younger kids know their name, parents’ full names, address, phone number, including area code and who to call in case of an emergency. Review how to use 911,” recommends Grace.

What Can Teachers Do to Keep Students Safe at School?

Teachers and school staff can only help in non-custodial situations if they are given necessary court documents. When documentation is submitted, school staff members should be alerted of any possible concern regarding a non-custodial parent.

Up-to-date pictures should be provided to all staff, whether they are the child’s teacher or not, and each staff member should be aware of each child of concern.

If possible, staff members should also be familiar with the friends and family of a non-custodial parent who has court-ordered limited access to their child.

“It is not unheard of for the non-custodial parent or person of concern to recruit other friends and family to assist them,” Grace says. “Information on close relatives and associates should be obtained.”

Closely monitoring playgrounds is also vital. Students of concern should be in the line of sight at all times and monitors should position themselves to be in close proximity to them.

Grace recommends parking lot activity also be monitored. Children should be escorted by a staff member during both drop-off and dismissal if there is a court order prohibiting a specific relative from contacting them.

Of course, all of the above recommendations for preventing non-custodial parental complications can be applied to all forms of visitor management. Having specific protocols, staff members who are well-versed in understanding custody court documents and parents who are aware of the role they play in providing essential documents is vital to protecting students from harm while they are in school.

About the Author

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Amy Rock is Campus Safety's senior editor. She graduated from UMass Amherst with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications and a minor in Education.

She has worked in the publishing industry since 2011, in both events and digital marketing.

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