PTA's right to know

November 10, 1993

The role of the Parent Teacher Association in the school system has always been somewhat unclear: advocate or liaison, supporter or challenger?

That ambiguity was exposed recently when the Harford County school administration suspended a teacher in Magnolia Middle School who has been accused of sexual misconduct by several students. The school and the countywide PTAs learned of the suspension from news reports. Their leaders were upset that they were not informed beforehand.

PTA officials argued that they should be told before parents learn about it through the media and deluge them with questions they cannot answer. We don't think that is the proper role for the PTA; it is the job of the school board or the administration to respond to parent concerns.

Sexual misconduct by teachers is an exceptionally provocative issue. The recent publicized cases in Anne Arundel County, for instance, have prompted widespread fears that schools may be covering up these episodes and leaving more youngsters vulnerable to possible abuse.

In Harford, the school suspended the teacher with pay and is investigating the student allegations; child welfare authorities were also informed promptly. There was no need for PTA intervention or advocacy, and certainly no basis at all for prior consultation on the administrative action.

Had there been persistent rumors or reports of problems that were left unaddressed, the PTA leadership could properly have raised them with school authorities. Individual parents could properly raise these concerns as well; if the school proved unresponsive, parents could then ask the PTA for support in making their case to the administration.

The local Parent Teacher Associations have enough problems with potential liability for their actions. They don't need the added exposure to possible defamation lawsuits by insisting on being the conduit of sensitive personnel decisions.

There is also a conflict between parents and teachers' representatives when the issue concerns disciplinary action: the teachers union is obligated to defend its members, regardless of what parents believe. School administrators who work with both groups can be caught in the uncomfortable middle.

PTAs can question discipline of suspect teachers and principals, they can push for investigations of incidents on behalf of parents, they can be consulted on policies (but not individual cases) of student and staff behavior. But they do not need to be the first to know about teacher discipline cases.

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