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Last modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2011

IU School of Education faculty member hopes book will arm principals with legal knowledge

Suzanne Eckes co-author of work to help school leaders make better decisions, inform teachers

Aug. 17, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new book co-authored by an Indiana University School of Education faculty member is aimed at filling large gaps in legal knowledge that exist in elementary and secondary schools.


Suzanne Eckes, associate professor of education at the IU School of Education

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Principals Teaching the Law: 10 Legal Lessons Your Teachers Must Know (Corwin Press) is co-written by Suzanne Eckes, a lawyer and associate professor of education at the IU School of Education, David Schimmel, professor emeritus of education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Matthew Militello, associate professor of education at North Carolina State University.

Eckes said the idea for the book grew from a national survey Schimmel and Militello conducted polling teachers on legal issues and potential responses. "And what they found was that teachers were very misinformed about school legal issues," Eckes said.

In that survey conducted in 2005 and 2006, more than 75 percent of teachers reported that they had taken no course in school law (the IU School of Education is among a few schools of education that require a three-credit school law course for elementary and secondary education majors). More than half were misinformed about legal issues; the mean correct scores for the more than 1,300 respondents was 41 percent for the student rights section and 39 percent for the teacher rights section.

In contrast, most principals have at least had a school law course and teachers often seek them out for at least initial legal advice. So Eckes said the authors decided to create a book with prepared lesson plans that would allow principals to hold training sessions on legal issues with their faculty and staff.

"Each lesson starts off with a 'hook,'" she said. "For example, on student speech, maybe the hook would be a YouTube clip that is from some news station, talking about teachers having negative things written about them on Facebook. The question is 'can you curtail that speech' or 'can you discipline students for that speech?' So we show how the issue is relevant to teachers and to principals; why they should be talking about it in their schools."

The authors have extensive legal, education and school experience that has informed the book. Sections include chapters and lessons on school liability for injuries, religious considerations, bullying, student records, and out-of-school conduct. Appendices provide a guideline for legal research, a guide to the court system, and other resources.

"We stress in the book that we don't expect school principals to play the role of an attorney or school law professor," Eckes said. "This is just to get the discussion going about legal issues to help guide them in the right direction."

Eckes added that the book encourages further discussion during professional development sessions that may also involve an attorney to explore issues more deeply. "They'll have a pretty good idea of where the law is, where they could be informed, and avoid some of the issues that are arising in the classroom."

Eckes, who earned her Ph.D. and law degrees from the University of Wisconsin after an Ed.M. in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from Harvard, has written recent articles dealing with school legal issues surrounding sexual orientation, cyber charter schools, compliance with federal Title IX requirements, and desegregation. She teaches school law and ethics at the IU School of Education.