Published Online: April 9, 1997

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Divorce Increasingly Puts Schools In the Middle of Family Conflicts

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School administrators in Hilton, N.Y., know that breaking up is hard to do--especially for the children. So they try to accommodate families in which parents have gone their separate ways.

The district will bend its residency rules to keep a child in the same school until the family's situation stabilizes. Administrators hold separate teacher conferences for divorced parents and send out duplicate report cards--one for the mother, one for the father.

The accommodations have limits, though. A new policy makes clear that schools are not obligated to send out a second copy of every official notice or homework paper.

Hilton is an example of a district that has taken an active approach to a complex and difficult problem for educators around the country: the repercussions of failed marriages and new-style parenting arrangements. In recent years, the situations principals must sort out have gotten stickier and the requests from parents more numerous and insistent.

"It seems to me we are involved in much more complex and increasingly adversarial separations and breakups than in the past," said Christopher A. Bogden, the superintendent of the 4,500-student district northwest of Rochester.

Administrators often struggle with decisions about what to do and what not to do for parents living apart from their children. Principals and others must juggle family concerns with legal requirements and practical matters of staffing and resources.

And they say they're not getting much guidance, either from the relatively scattered laws on the subject or from experts.

Lawyers often counsel schools to be cautious about assuming new obligations, especially ones that might embroil them in parents' legal disputes. Psychologists and parent advocates, on the other hand, urge schools to do more to keep parents involved.

Joint Custody More Common

What's not in doubt is the prevalence of children affected by divorce. The rate of divorce in the United States doubled between 1970 and 1980, then declined slightly before leveling off in the late 1980s. More than a third of all children born in the past decade are expected to live apart from one of their parents before they are grown.

Overwhelmingly, they will reside with their mothers. In a recent study of 19 states, the federal National Center for Health Statistics found that custody went to mothers in 72 percent of divorce cases. It went to fathers in just 9 percent of cases; in 16 percent, custody was shared.

Joint custody has been on the upswing for 20 years. Currently, 43 states allow the arrangement, and in 11 it is the preferred approach.

But with or without joint custody, more fathers are pressing for recognition of their rights. At the same time, some administrators say a minority of parents are fighting more fiercely than ever before over their children, with the school as one of their battlegrounds.

"Administrators have to deal with ... battling parents, and sometimes the battling parents are dangerous," said Patricia B. Luke, the executive director of the Connecticut Elementary and Middle School Principals' Association. "The adults are going after what they want at all costs."

Legal Status Unclear

At worst, the family conflicts put schools on guard for kidnapping. At best, messy breakups present a minefield of well-intentioned missteps.

Judith Vogt, a school nurse at Grosse Pointe South High School in the Detroit suburbs, remembers an incident in which she couldn't reach a student's mother to take the girl to the emergency room. So she called the father, who was no longer married to the mother.

When the mother found out sometime later, she complained that the school hadn't informed her. "She was all bent out of shape," even though her daughter was fine, Ms. Vogt recalled.

Federal and state laws offer little help in such cases. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act requires any public or private school that receives federal funds to allow parents, regardless of custody, to inspect their children's educational records, as long as state or local regulations don't say otherwise and courts haven't taken away that right.

But the 1974 law, designed to ensure that such records are fair and accurate, is silent on such issues as whether a school must mail out information to noncustodial parents or notify them about a school conference.

Most states have their own laws that guarantee both parents access to their children's school and medical records, and some state laws also provide for "reasonable" visitation for noncustodial parents. At least 17 go further, declaring that such parents have equal rights with custodial parents as long as they are acting in the best interests of the child.

"It is not an area of the law which is highly fleshed out," said Jeff Atkinson, an expert on family law who teaches at DePaul University in Chicago.

"We've had attorneys come in and do workshops, and after you've done the workshop, you're still not sure what to do," said Russell P. Luttinen, the principal at Grosse Pointe South High.

Legislators in Massachusetts are considering a bill that would spell out what a school must do to communicate with parents who live apart from their children. It would, in effect, require schools to mail to those parents records of the children's academic progress and notices of school events.

Robert Maschi of Framingham, Mass., whose struggle as a noncustodial father prompted the bill, said it is unfair to make one parent responsible for keeping the other abreast of a child's schooling.

"My ex-wife doesn't try to exclude me, but if she missed a report card, she was feeling like my secretary," he said.

Few District Policies

Many districts do not have policies on the school-related rights of unmarried or estranged parents.

James F. Austin, who teaches school psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio, surveyed 79 Midwestern school districts on divorced parents' school-related rights in 1990. He found that 60 percent had no policy relating to estranged parents.

He believes the lack of policies goes hand in hand with schools' apparent willingness to keep noncustodial parents distant. Mr. Austin found that only about half the districts he studied formally asked for the names of noncustodial parents or invited them to legally mandated special education conferences.

Almost half the districts made information available to the noncustodial parent only upon request of the custodial parent or with that parent's permission, even when no permission was legally required.

Many experts say that children whose parents are divorced do better if both parents stay involved with their education, and Mr. Austin argues that district policies should have that aim.

But administrators point out that estranged parents sometimes make unreasonable demands on schools, or harmful demands on their children, and that, in fact, policies often arise out of schools' desire to say no to parents in a consistent and evenhanded way.

Guidelines for Schools

Generally, though, legal and other experts, parent advocates, and many administrators agree that it is not too much to ask that schools:

  • Hold separate conferences for estranged parents;
  • Mail report cards, school calendars, and notices of major school events to parents who do not live with their children, especially upon request;
  • Try to collect addresses for students' mothers and fathers, whether separated or not; and
  • Ask parents to provide school officials with the details of custody arrangements.

But there is less agreement about how energetically schools should pursue parent involvement. Mr. Austin, the educational psychologist, believes schools should do more than add space on a registration card for the parent who is not in residence.

"If one parent cannot document that the other parent has no legal rights in regard to the child, then the school district has the obligation to do its best to contact whoever fills out the form" to get the other name, he argued.

But Mr. Bogden, the Hilton schools chief, disagrees. "There are clearly more urgent things to do than ask if there's another parent in the picture," he said.

Need for Flexibility

The district's lawyer has advised administrators to strictly limit the scope of the information routinely provided to the noncustodial parent, Mr. Bogden said. Report cards should be mailed to both parents if both are interested, but sending copies of all work home or duplicating all written or telephone contact is unduly burdensome, according to rulings by the New York state education commissioner.

Amid such arguments, many educators feel stuck in the middle.

If they go the ultra-safe route and create a file on each child detailing separation or divorce agreements, as some school system lawyers recommend, are they then responsible for keeping up with such changes?

Better, other lawyers say, is a procedure that generally gives the parent in residence say over who can pick up the child, but allows the other parent to present documents showing that the right is shared.

As difficult as making the rules may be, administrators and experts also advocate creative ways to meet both family and school needs. Mr. Atkinson, the expert on family law, suggests that schools hold several displays of student work a year and notify parents well in advance of the dates. Other ways to keep parents informed include portfolios of student work kept in the school office and school sites on the World Wide Web.

Sometimes, too, the crucial ingredient may be quick thinking on the part of administrators.

In January, Edward Marsman, the principal of the K-9 Lincoln School in Duluth, Minn., confronted a father who arrived at the school demanding to take his children. The night before, the children and their mother had gone to a shelter for abused women.

Citing school attendance law, Mr. Marsman told the father that his only option was to return at the end of the school day. Meanwhile, the principal sought help from local social workers.

He found that it would probably be two days before a court order restraining the father would be issued. Fearing the father's return and with no legal reason to bar him, Mr. Marsman called the shelter to have the children picked up before the end of the day.

Like many administrators in difficult situations, he said, "I had to make a professional judgment."

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