Do you have a right to know if another student brings a gun to your child’s school? That’s the debated happening in Belleville, Michigan right now after administrators kept a student’s arrest and expulsion secret from the district’s parents.
On February 15, 2016, a young man made the horrible decision to bring a gun and bullets to school with him in his backpack. The 13 year old stole the gun from a relative and brought it to Belleville High School because he was afraid of another student and his friends.
Fortunately, the gun was detected and confiscated by school security before anyone was threatened or hurt. The young man was arrested, and quickly expelled from the district.
But the school principal, Abdul Madyun, and Van Buren School District superintendent, Michael Van Tassel, decided to keep the incident quiet. Parents of students in the district were never notified. In fact, some of them only learned of the weapon when reporters came to ask them questions about it a week later.
Parents Demand the Right to Know
Now those parents are objecting, demanding the right to know when the school’s safety is at risk. They point out that it would only have taken a few seconds for the weapon to be loaded, creating a deadly situation. Concerned parents point out that several districts in the state use automatic notification systems to keep parents informed, why wouldn’t that include notice of a gun in school?
Administrators Defend Choice Not to Notify Parents
Van Buren School District officials are defending their decision not to notify parents. Principal Madyun told Click On Detroit that no students were in danger. He added:
“There was not a loaded gun in school … so again, where’s the line? … there were bullets in the backpack,” he said. “In a separate part.”
In these situations, school administrators have to weigh parents’ rights to know with students’ rights to privacy. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act directs who has access to a student’s educational file. Generally speaking, educational records are private. But the law leaves a lot of discretion to schools when safety is involved.
In Belleville, it appears school officials put the young man’s privacy first, since there was no imminent threat. But were they right to do so?
Constitutional Parental Rights
The issue gets murky because each parent at the school has the constitutional right to make decisions about his or her child.
“The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children… is a fundamental right.” Pierce v Society of Sisters
That includes making reasonable decisions regarding their child’s participation in public schools. Some parents demand that, in order to make those decisions, they must be reasonably informed of risks at the school, including objectionable lesson plans, unvaccinated children, and violence at the school.
But does that mean parents have the right to know about things that never impacted their children? Must a school notify parents of every fight because it involves violence in the school?
Michigan courts have not provided an answer, yet. It is likely, if they do, the answer will be somewhere in the middle – giving schools discretion to protect student privacy unless there is a reasonable threat of disruption at the school. Whether that includes a gun and bullets in a backpack is now up for debate. What is clear is that the balance between parents’ rights, student privacy, and school security is a very complicated dance.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a school attorney at Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She represents students in suspension and expulsion hearings, as well as in Juvenile Court. If you know a student at trouble in school, contact Schmidt Law Services today for a free consultation.