in loco parentis

Most of us are familiar with the burden of responsibility that comes with employment. Along with the careers that we have chosen, or the jobs that we have taken, comes the responsibility to complete our work, act in the best interests of our employers and in many cases make sure that the customers we serve are satisfied.

For some this burden of responsibility is even greater. Doctors, nurses, police and fire personnel are all examples of those in our community that carry a little more responsibility than others in the pursuit of their vocation. In some cases those individuals swear an oath…’do no harm’ or ‘to serve and protect’ are both examples of a sworn commitment to perform to a standard of service or to set an example.

But let’s stop and consider the burden of responsibility carried by another important group in our community…school administrators. Principals and vice principals in each and every one of our Nevada County schools are charged with the legal responsibility of in loco parentis. That is, in the absence of parents our school administrators have the legal obligation to make decisions on behalf of parents, especially as related to the safety and well-being of students while at school.

To be clear, there is no formal oath or commitment ceremony attached to this obligation…it’s just part of the job. School administrators are trained in district and state policy with regards to maintaining a safe school environment and are well prepared to make decisions in the best interest of their students.

If the burden of in loco parentis seems heavy, consider for a moment how the role of school administrators has changed over the years. We might assume that the average day of a school principal or vice principal is made up of tasks like staffing considerations, budgets and financial planning, curriculum issues, facilities and equipment, etc. But according to Chris Roberts, Principal of Lyman Gilmore Middle School in Grass Valley, that list is not entirely accurate. The top item on his list, for this current year and for the last few years, is school safety.

Simply stated the term ‘school safety’ in Principal Roberts’ world is making sure that his school environment is made safe for all 540+ of his students and that each and every one of them is cared for every school day of the year. With the marked increase in school violence in the United States…387 school shooting incidents since 1992 (according to…multiple changes have had to be made in how schools conduct their day-to-day business. For example, every school staff member must now wear a school issued ID on a lanyard to help make them easily identifiable in the event of an emergency. Staff administrators regularly carry walkie-talkies in order to be able to stay in contact at all times. And for those of us who remember fire drills from our own school days, consider for a moment the fact that all California schools now practice lockdown drills once every other month so that our children know what to do in the event of an armed attack.

Concern for student safety reaches beyond our school fences. In 2013 our Nevada County Superintendent of Schools created a multi-agency committee to help facilitate increased communication and information sharing relative to school safety and emergency preparedness. The Community Agencies United for Safe Schools and Safe Streets (CAUSSSS) is made up of local law enforcement, school administrators and other supporting agencies and was designed to increase discussion and awareness around safety issues, suspicious activity and crisis planning. School principals and vice principals participate in these monthly meetings and benefit from the information and the reminder to be vigilant.

Also on Principal Roberts’ list are the issues that he and his staff contend with related to marijuana cultivation and consumption in Nevada County. Ever since our current medical marijuana ordinance was first enacted in May of 2012 there has been an increase in school incidents related to marijuana. These range from simple cannabis possession by students all the way to students arriving to school with the odor and oils of marijuana on their clothing, backpacks and persons. Teachers and school staff have had to learn how to effectively counsel parents and students on what is acceptable in the school environment and what is not.

Recently concerns have been raised regarding the legality of the use of contraband dogs in our Nevada County schools, and specifically whether or not this practice is a violation of the student’s civil rights. Civil rights questions are most certainly best addressed by lawyers and judges but it seems to me that pausing for a moment to consider the broad picture of safety in our schools is a valuable first step.

Every day we parents send our kids off to school and leave them in the care of those who have opted to teach, and to fulfill the obligation of in loco parentis. Every day we are able to count on the teachers and administrators to make the right decisions and to do everything in their power to ensure the care and safety of our kids. It seems to me that our teachers and administrators should be able to count on us for our unwavering support and a little benefit of the doubt.

This article was originally published as an editorial in The Union newspaper in Grass Valley, CA. The topic, however, reaches across the entire country.