Rights of Student Teachers - Law and Higher Education
Students who seek teacher certification through university approval must successfully complete the prerequisite coursework, a field experience course, and a final student teaching internship in order to gain licensure for teaching purposes. Clearly, student teaching is a high-stakes enterprise that represents the culmination of a student’s teacher preparation program and serves as the prerequisite to teacher certification. Legislation in each of the 50 states provides institutions of higher education with express or implied authority for this purpose. On occasion, the representatives of the sponsoring institutions of higher education or the cooperating school boards make decisions that deprive students from colleges or schools of education of the opportunity to begin or complete student teaching, thereby leading to litigation. In light of emerging questions surrounding this key topic, this entry examines legal issues involving the rights of student teachers.
The following four cases are representative examples of published judicial opinions that resulted when student teachers sued institutions of higher learning or school boards. The issues in these cases include fulfillment of prerequisites for participation in student teaching, faculty evaluations of student teachers’ teaching skills, behavior of student teachers at student teaching sites not directly related to the classes they teach, and student teachers’ behavior outside the school site or classroom.
In Hunt v. University of Alaska (2002), officials at a public university refused to allow an elementary education major with a 3.58 grade point average, including the prerequisite courses and practicum for student teaching, to participate in student teaching. The facts revealed that the student failed the reading and writing parts of the Praxis examination, which is usually not required until after completion of the degree. The Supreme Court of Alaska affirmed that the faculty could impose this prerequisite to the student’s participation, because his application essays caused concern regarding his language skills.
Embrey v. Central State University (1991) involved another education major, at a private college, who received a final grade of “F” for student teaching without receiving any written evaluations during the semester. Although the applicable policy called for periodic meetings between the supervising faculty member and the student teacher, the faculty member had expressed concerns about the student’s performance only to the cooperating teacher. Even so, an appellate court in Ohio upheld the student’s dismissal from the program, because she did not pass the course.
In Leone v. Whitford (2007), a student teacher in Connecticut ripped down the bulletin board she had been working on after the cooperating teacher suggested changes. A week later, a special university committee conducted a hearing with the student teacher concerning the incident and her previous pattern of confrontational behavior. The resulting decision was to withdraw her from the student teaching placement and the certification program and to offer her the opportunity to work on the department’s Web page as an independent study project to fulfill the B.S. degree in art education with no certification. When the student teacher sued the university and officials on a variety of claims, the federal trial court granted their motion for summary judgment on the ground that she failed to establish that she had a fundamental right to earn her degree.
The final case, Lai v. Board of Trustees of East Carolina University (1971), involved a student teacher who was arrested in another state and charged with drug possession. However, the prosecution dropped the charges. Then, the student submitted a student teaching application that the director rejected. Subsequently, at the direction of the university president, the education committee provided the student with notice and a hearing wherein he admitted that he had smoked marijuana, resulting in affirming the director’s decision. In the ensuing litigation, a federal trial court in North Carolina granted the university’s motion for summary judgment in light of this and other factors, such as the student’s overall academic status and failure to fulfill his prior assignments.
Practical Considerations for Student Teachers
A review and analysis of the published case law yields some useful points for student teachers to consider should they find themselves in similar situations. First, student teachers need to think carefully before proceeding with litigation. The costs of litigation, including not only attorney fees and court costs but also the often underestimated time commitment and the adversarial nature of proceedings are considerable and draining. Moreover, the outcomes of such suits have often been in favor of the defendant institutions. More specifically, of the 28 published cases to this point, 23 were resolved in favor of colleges and universities on all counts.
The five cases that were not completely in favor of the institutions were outliers in terms of factual or legal circumstances. In Miller v. Dailey (1902), the earliest published opinion on student teaching, a student successfully challenged his exclusion from a program, because officials had failed to provide any evaluation before dismissing him from the program. This case is outside the modern mainstream of the pertinent published decisions, because it is the earliest case in student teaching litigation, and the proinstitution trend is more pronounced in the current judicial climate. The second case, Moore v. Gaston County Board of Education (1973), was factually distinctive, because the plaintiff was substituting for a regular teacher and thus was within the role of an employee rather than in the marginal position of student teacher. The third decision, Betts v. Ann Arbor Public Schools (1978), interpreted “employee” in terms of state disability law, a broader view than in most student teaching cases, perhaps because of the severity of the eye injury that the plaintiff had sustained while serving as a student teacher and for which he had entered a workers’ compensation claim. The fourth dispute, Burns v. Slippery Rock University (2007), was a limited and inconclusive victory for the student teacher in a dispute over whether she could successfully complete a field experience. Finally, the fifth case, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Doe v. Gonzaga University (2001), had a mixed outcome, where both the university and the student teacher scored partial victories in a disagreement over the release of information about the plaintiff that impacted his ability to earn certification.
Difference Between Private and Public Institutions as Defendants
The second consideration for student teachers as plaintiffs is whether the educational institution they are suing is public or private, because that represents a major contributing factor in the avenues of litigation that they might seek. The primary claims that potential plaintiffs for student teaching cases immediately identify are First Amendment freedom of speech, Fourth Amendment privacy, and the Fourteenth Amendment protections against discrimination, such as those afforded by the Equal Protection Clause, and arbitrary action under the Due Process Clause, which provides for procedural and substantive fair play. None of these constitutional rights applies to students at private colleges, universities, and cooperating schools, regardless of whether they receive federal funds. Instead, the primary claim against private institutions is for breach of contract, which is based on the official institutional policies applicable to student teaching.
Doctrine of Deference
Similarly important for student teachers to consider is the applicable deference doctrine. In general, whether it is a constitutional case or a breach of contract case, courts have consistently accorded notable latitude to educational institutions, including school districts, and even more so for colleges and universities. This deference is attributable to the traditional posture of courts in relation to administrative agencies and the additional special responsibility of school districts to protect youth in their charge and, more strongly, the ivory-tower isolation of colleges and universities. In issues of subjective academic judgment, which is often the case in student teaching litigation, the courts are particularly likely to abstain from intruding on the defendant institution’s judgment based on the specialized expertise of educators. Following the lead of the Supreme Court, which concluded that the clinical phase of medical school, including issues of patient relations and personal hygiene, were academic issues (Board of Curators of University of Missouri v. Horowitz, 1978), the lower courts stretched the umbrella of academic abstention to cover most matters in student teaching.
Following are the two illustrative cases and the outcomes: In the first case (Hunt v. University of Alaska, 2002), reviewed earlier, the state Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the student teacher’s suit, thereby summarily rejecting his constitutional and contractual claims while giving the defendant university the benefit of the doubt under the deference doctrine. The court also affirmed the earlier order directing the student teacher to pay part of the university’s attorney fees under the state’s rules of civil procedure, a rule he relied on erroneously.
Similarly, an appellate court in Ohio, in another case that was reviewed earlier, affirmed a judgment that was adverse to a former student teacher (Embrey v. Central State University, 1991). While acknowledging that the supervising faculty member was remiss in not fulfilling the periodic-meeting policy, the court was of the view that any breach was not material, because the student had reason to know of the specific performance criteria and had failed to fulfill them. Again, judicial deference to academic discretion was obvious in the outcome.
Pro Se Representation
Student teachers who are represented by attorneys who follow the nuances of the law in student teachers’ respective states are more successful than those who sue “pro se,” that is, without legal counsel. Although, as persons above the age of majority, student teachers have the option to proceed in court pro se, they do so at considerable risk. The complexities include not only the laws and precedents that are the basis for a student teacher’s case but also the procedures of the state or federal court in which student teacher sues. For example, in one of the 28 cases published between 1902 and 2007, the court dismissed the student teacher’s pro se suit against his cooperating school board (Cornell v. Pleasant Grove Independent School District, 2005), because his statement of the charges did not conform to the specificity requirements of the pertinent pleading process. In another case (Holt v. Munitz, 1996), the pro se plaintiff lost his First Amendment free-speech case against a public university, relying on the adverse precedents that apply to employees rather than the more favorable precedents that apply to students. In a third such situation (Arko v. U.S. Air Force Reserve Officer Training Program, 1987), a disgruntled former student teacher filed suit under two provisions of the U.S. Constitution and two federal statutes but did not get his day in court on any of them, because, without the benefit of any attorney’s expertise, he filed after the applicable limitations period for each of them had expired. The aforementioned Hunt v. University of Alaska (2002) was another pro se suit that ended badly for the student teacher.
The lesson for student teachers, then, is clear: If one runs into high-stakes problems with regard to student teaching, individuals need to know both their legal rights and limitations.
Two considerations warrant attention on the institutional side. First, officials on school boards and at public universities need, as a constitutional matter, to put a priority on procedural due process, particularly when the issue is disciplinary rather than academic. Private institutions should consider the same as a matter of moral and professional imperative, legal claims under breach of contract, or sheer competitiveness for quality candidates. The particular procedures include both adequate notice, prior to depriving a student or course credits or certification, of specific charges and hearings that satisfy the rudimentary notion of fair play.
Second, whether a matter of constitutional, contractual, or common law, substantive due process also merits attention. The analog to procedural fairness is substantive reasonableness, meaning that decisions and actions are neither arbitrary nor capricious. Within these broad principles, the number and outcomes of pertinent published cases suggest that institutional officials, whether in higher education or in school districts, need not be paralyzed by fear of litigation initiated by student teachers.
Zorka Karanxha and Perry A. Zirkel
See also academic freedom; Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz; Due Process, Substantive and Procedural
Karanxha, Z., & Zirkel, P. A. (2008). The case law on student teachers’ rights. Action in Teacher Education, 30(2), 46–58.
Karanxha, Z., & Zirkel, P. A. (2008). Student teachers’ diversity rights: The case law. In C. J. Craig & L. Deretchin (Eds.), Teacher education yearbook: Imagining a renaissance in teacher education (pp. 201–212). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Arko v. U.S. Air Force Reserve Officer Training Program, 661 F. Supp. 31 (D. Colo. 1987).
Betts v. Ann Arbor Public Schools, 271 N.W.2d 498 (Mich. 1978).
Board of Curators of University of Missouri v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78 (1978).
Burns v. Slippery Rock University, 2007 WL 2317310 (W.D. Pa. 2007), on reconsideration, 2007 WL 2463402 (W.D. Pa. 2007).
Cornell v. Pleasant Grove Independent School District, 2005 WL 2277396 (E.D. Tex. 2005).
Doe v. Gonzaga University, 24 P.3d 390 (Wash. 2001), rev’d in part, sub nom. Gonzaga University v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273 (2002).
Embrey v. Central State University, 1991 WL 224228 (Ohio Ct. App. 1991).
Holt v. Munitz, 87 F.3d 1319 (9th Cir. 1996).
Hunt v. University of Alaska, 52 P.3d 739 (Alaska 2002).
Lai v. Board of Trustees of East Carolina University, 320 F. Supp. 904 (E.D.N.C. 1971).
Leone v. Whitford, 2007 WL 1191347 (D. Conn. 2007).
Miller v. Dailey, 68 P. 1029 (Cal. 1902).
Moore v. Gaston County Board of Education, 357 F. Supp. 1037 (W.D.N.C. 1973).