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Ask Judy: My school refuses to let me visit classrooms. Is that legal?

Dear Judy,

I was recently denied the right to observe my daughter in her public high school. I was not given a reason. I contacted the district and filed a complaint with the District Family Advocate. She told me that by rule of the Chancellor I would have to get permission from every parent of every student in the classrooms I intended to observe. This directly violates the Supreme Court ruling in Owasso v. Falvo case. I also cited that parental classroom observation is provided for the in the NCLB Act, I have received no response from the school and am wondering what my next step should be. As a concerned parent, I am outraged that I'm being denied my legal right to observe my daughter's classes.

Brooklyn Dad

Dear Brooklyn Dad,

The Department of Education's rules on family visits to their children's classrooms are not exactly clear. The explanation that the district family advocate gave for refusing a visit to observe your child's classroom is not correct. It would be correct if the object of your visit had been to photograph, film, video, or record the class. In that case, it is DOE policy to protect the privacy of students by asking for parental permission. That policy is usually applied to the media, which might, for instance, publish the pictures or broadcast the films.

You are also correct, regarding the legal case you cited, that there is no prohibition on visits under the Family Education Records Privacy Act (FERPA). Under that law, privacy pertains only to written documents kept on file by the school. That was affirmed in an e-mail from Martine Guerrier, chief family engagement officer at the Office of Family Advocacy and Engagement. She went on to write that "principals may determine classroom visitation practices." That phrase is key, because no matter how often the DOE says it wants your participation, and the court says such a visit does not violate privacy, in New York City it is the principal who guards the classroom door.

In her email, Guerrier pointed to a document published on the OFEA website suggesting that to visit, parents make an appointment through the school secretary or parent coordinator, or if asked, put a request in writing, including a reason for the visit. Presumably, the principal could turn you down, and indeed that is what happened to you. Since you already took the first step of appealing to the DFA, your next step should be to the leader of your school support network.

To respond to this question, I re-read the Parents Bill of Rights and found that the right to visit the school and to be a member of the school community is not the same thing as a visit to observe a class. Although there is a specific statement that parents have a right to visit school during Open School Week (when parent/teacher conferences are held) there is no specific mention of the classroom, although it has been long standing practice to invite parents to observe. In fact, DOE directives on Open School Week urge the schools to provide special programs and exhibits during that week, which might not give a true picture of the class, or even leave much time to spend there.

The practice varies from school to school, with some schools having more of an "open door policy" than others. Overcrowding may be a factor in why some schools say "no" to parent visits.

In other cases, particularly where a child may be acting out or missing classes, school leaders even invite a parent to shadow the student for a day, hoping this will improve behavior. But this apparently isn't the situation with your daughter and school. Try appealing to the school's network leader, or the superintendent. If there is a specific class you want to witness, maybe the teacher will be willing to let you come in.

Good luck!
Judy

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