Communicating with the folks at your child’s school can be challenging for any parent. But when you are a non-custodial parent, establishing a means of communication may be even more difficult if school officials don’t know and follow the law.
We know that a child’s education is best supported when both parents are engaged in a child’s education. And engagement can’t happen without communication from the school.
When a child’s parents are no longer or never married and one parent has been granted physical custody of the child, a non-custodial parent can be left out of the loop of education and school-related activities.
Unless a court specifically orders that a parent not have access to their child’s education and school information, school officials must do what is required by law to ensure both custodial and non-custodial parents have access to information about their child’s education.
The Importance of Custody Orders and the Two Types of Custody
Most schools require court-issued custody orders to be shared with the school and kept in the child’s permanent record. What isn’t clear is whether school officials know what those orders mean.
There are two types of custody: physical and legal.
Physical custody addresses a child’s living conditions and how much time a child spends with each parent.
Legal custody addresses whether one or both parents have equal say in making decisions for a child. If joint legal custody exists, both parents must be consulted when education decisions are on the table, such as whether a child needs to be evaluated for special education or if a child may need to repeat a grade.
In some cases, the court may grant education decision-making exclusively to one parent.
School officials must know what type of custody arrangement exists for each child.
Access to Education Records for Both Parents
Alabama law goes farther than FERPA and grants additional access to parents. Regardless of which parent has which type of custody, Alabama law mandates that both parents have access to education records unless prohibited by a court order.
Alabama law, Section 30-3-154, states:
Unless otherwise prohibited by court order or statute, all records and information pertaining to the child, including, but not limited to, medical, physiological, dental, scholastic, athletic, extracurricular, and law enforcement, shall be equally available to both parents, in all types of custody arrangements.
The phrase “equally available to both parents” is key. Barring a court order to the contrary, school officials must ensure that both parents have the opportunity to receive all information about the child’s education world.
What If School Officials Know Nothing About the Existence of the Non-Custodial Parent?
Both custodial and non-custodial parent information should be entered on registration forms, but if the person completing the forms doesn’t provide non-custodial parent information, school officials may not be aware of the existence of the non-custodial parent.
School officials are under no mandate to proactively seek information about a child’s non-custodial parent, but must be ready to accommodate a non-custodial parent who steps forward to be included in school communications.
If You Are the Non-Custodial Parent
Kenneth Paschal, Executive Director of the Alabama Family Rights Association, created a presentation free for anyone to use to learn more about how to effectively deal with post-custody child rearing issues during the school year to limit the negative impact on the children, parents and school administration.
Paschal’s presentation offers many examples and suggestions of ways that non-custodial parents can approach teachers and school officials in asserting their legal rights, while stepping gently and avoiding confrontation where possible.
Paschal encourages non-custodial parents to be persistent, show genuine concern for their child’s welfare, and let their steadfast involvement speak the loudest.
Here are a few of the many good suggestions contained in the presentation:
- Pull together a short list of the goals you and your child have for their academic and social growth and share it with administrators and teachers
- Prepare a fact sheet on yourself with essential information including any special skills you have – make it easy for the teacher to know you
- Assure teachers you will always be available to help with extracurricular projects and BE TRUE TO YOUR WORD
- Ask the teacher for the best ways to be involved
- Ask if the InformationNOW (iNow) Parent Portal is available to allow you to stay abreast of your child’s absences, grades, and other important school information
- Provide your email address for notification of important events or at least present the teacher with self-addressed stamped envelopes and post-cards to be used to notify you of regular school activities
- Make certain the school has a copy of the custody papers
Good Advice for All Parents – Married, Divorced or Single
Reading through Paschal’s presentation, I couldn’t help but recognize that these are great suggestions for all parents, regardless of whether you’re married, divorced or single.
Some that particularly caught my eye:
- Access to records and information WILL NOT mean you are involved. That depends on you.
- When your child sees you at school functions, that will reinforce that you are a parent that cares no matter what.
- Keep your contact information up-to-date, stay committed, volunteer, and take advantage of the school’s iNow Parent Portal.
- Make it easy for the teacher to include you in the school life of your child.
Ways to Make It Easier for Non-Custodial Parents to Be Engaged – What School Officials Can Do
While teachers and administrators need to be sensitive to communication struggles between parents who are not living together, the best way for teachers and administrators to positively impact the family is by treating both parents as equal partners in their child’s education.
School officials should ensure that procedures for adding parents to distribution lists and obtaining passwords for class web sites and the iNow portal is easy and barrier-free.
Teachers can offer to hold parent-teacher conferences separately if tension between custodial and non-custodial parents make joint conferences difficult.
Teachers should avoid showing preference to one parent over the other or engaging in personal conversation pitting one parent against the other.
Teachers should know which school personnel to contact if conflict between custodial and non-custodial parents becomes disruptive during school hours or school events.
School officials could utilize a form similar to this one clarifying right up front which parent has which type of custody.
School officials should always be developing and refining ways for parents to be engaged in their child’s education. Non-custodial parents can face additional barriers that should be given careful consideration when designing communication paths for parents.
School boards should consider developing a policy to support parent engagement for custodial and non-custodial parents.
Parents (custodial and non-custodial), make the time to introduce yourself to your child’s teacher and share with them your desire to stay engaged. As Paschal said, make it easy for the teacher to include you in the school life of your child.
Are you a non-custodial parent that has found a great way to stay engaged in your child’s education? Are you a teacher or administrator that has devised a great way to engage all parents? Let me know here, on the Facebook page, or email me at asc(at)alabamaschoolconnection.org.