Legal Brief

Can Parents be ‘Expelled’ for Bad Behavior?

BY V. WAYNE YOUNG 

The scene: A peaceful gathering in a city park. A minor dispute arises between two individuals. Soon, others join. Shouts and obscenities fill the air. Tensions escalate, threats are made and the crowd becomes unruly. Police are called, but no one is injured or arrested.

Gang confrontation? Lawful protest that got out of hand? Excessive consumption of adult beverages?

None of the above. It was a middle school baseball game in which my son was playing. Two controversial calls from an umpire led one group of parents to boisterously express their disagreement, ultimately prompting a parent on the other team to call the police.

Growing Disruptions

Incidents of parental misbehavior at interscholastic sporting events seem to be rising. Many incidents do not involve threats or violence but are disruptive in nature. Just this school year:

  • In Michigan, a father berated a high school basketball coach — who was at a restaurant dining with his family — regarding his daughter’s playing time;
  • An Illinois parent, also a school board member, confronted a middle school basketball coach during a game, regarding a player (who was not his son) whom he believed should get to play more;
  • The father of a high school ice hockey player in Massachusetts repeatedly shined a laser pointer in the eyes of the opposing team’s goalie when his child’s team was attempting to score.

Each parent was banned — one by the superintendent, the others by school boards — from attending athletic events for the remainder of the year. One is challenging his ban; another describes his penalty as “out of proportion.”

General Laws Apply

Parents attending school athletic events remain bound by the same laws governing public behavior. Disorderly conduct, menacing behavior, trespassing and similar violations would be appropriate in many circumstances of public misbehavior. Some states (mine included) have specific laws sanctioning misbehavior directed toward personnel at school events, athletes and referees.

In Kentucky, it is a misdemeanor to “disrupt or interfere with” a teacher, coach or administrator engaged in “normal school activities.” The same offense, carrying a penalty of up to a year in jail, applies to assaulting a sports official.

However, absent injury or threats, school officials often find it less cumbersome and more effective to simply ban the offending parent from attending future events. Though less complicated than bringing criminal charges, this option should be applied sparingly, thoughtfully and within a formal district policy structure.

Due Process Matters

While parents can argue they have legal protection to be involved in their child’s education and school activities, any such right is not absolute. Criminal laws still apply to their interactions with educators, coaches and players.

And just as schools set behavior rules for students that exceed the threshold established in criminal statutes, they may do so for parents too. Absent a specific state law to the contrary, a district generally may adopt guidelines exceeding those applicable to public conduct in other settings.

Workable Practices

Clearly written, thoughtful rules for behavior by parents of student athletes, with well-defined penalties for violation, are a wise first step. Ejections and bans on future attendance could be acceptable penalties for certain offenses. For lesser ones, warnings and probationary periods might suffice.

Consistent enforcement and a simple but meaningful appeal or review process for violations are equally advisable. Showing favoritism or failing to consider all circumstances can render an otherwise sound policy unworkable or void.

No reason exists for schools to tolerate boorish, vulgar or disruptive behavior by adults at athletic events. With basic elements of due process, school districts can cultivate a culture of respect, sportsmanship and proportionality for their extracurricular activities.

Wayne Young is the executive director and general counsel for the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. E-mail: wayne@kasa.org