Courts, Schools Can Limit Contact by Difficult Parents - in Custody Cases and Elsewhere

February 8, 2016

By: Thomas D. Rees, Esq. and Elizabeth Early, Esq.

Tom Rees is a partner in High Swartz’s employment and litigation group and devotes significant time to representation of independent schools.  Liz Early is an associate in High Swartz’s family law group.

When spousal fights affect the schooling of the couple’s children, the courts and the children’s schools are put in a difficult position. A recent Pennsylvania Superior Court decision reinforces, parents whose conduct at school is contrary to the best interests of a child may face partial or full limits on custody when dealing with the school.   Independent (private) schools may also restrict the difficult parents from access to the school, and may even remove the children from school on the basis of the parents’ conduct.

In  the case, J.P.W., Jr. v. A.N.H.,  the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld a trial judge’s strict limitations on a parent’s contact with a child’s preschool because of the parent’s disruptive behavior.

The Superior Court’s decision, while stated to be non-precedential, is both consistent with previous case law and significant to lawyers and laypersons who deal with custody and education issues.

In the J.P.W. case, the mother incorrectly insisted to her child’s independent (private) Catholic preschool that the child was autistic, developmentally delayed, and had not been potty-trained.  In contrast, the school and the child’s pediatrician found that the child was functioning normally for his age, was not autistic, and had potty-training.

The father, who had primary physical and sole legal custody, obtained a trial court order directing the mother, among other restrictions, to cease telling anyone that the child was autistic or developmentally delayed.   The court order also limited the mother’s presence at the child’s school to pick up and drop off and to group activities such as parent teacher conferences and open houses.

The mother appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court and challenged this order, arguing that it infringed on her constitutional rights, namely her right to free speech and her due process rights under the 14th Amendment.

The Superior Court disagreed with the mother and found that any infringement on her constitutional rights were outweighed in this case by the need to protect the child’s best interests who was clearly being harmed by the mother’s behavior.  The trial court’s order was upheld.

Even if the court failed to intervene with the mother’s bizarre and inappropriate interactions with the school, the school itself has remedies available to it to resolve the situation. Since the preschool in question was an independent school, the school could have excluded or limited the mother from the school premises.

Independent schools are private associations and are not bound by the same Constitutional principles which apply to public schools.  Such schools often have enrollment contracts that allow dismissal of students whose parents interfere with the school’s operations or the learning environment.  Independent schools may find it necessary to engage in progressive discipline of parents, first, by limiting parents’ contact with the school, and then by more stringent sanctions including possible dismissal of the child  Schools tend to use the “difficult parent” clause as a last resort, because if the child is not able to attend the school the child loses an educational opportunity due to the parents’ misconduct.  Though independent schools can impose contractual sanctions whether or not parents are divorced, the problem of disruptive parents often occurs in divorce and custody cases, and no school wants to become embroiled in custody battles, custody subpoenas, or other family feuds. Knowing that the state courts can and will interfere with the harmful, intrusive behavior of a parent into a child’s education, at least within the context of a custody matter, should be of solace to both public and private schools who deal with similar issues on a regular basis.

For more information, feel free to contact Thomas Rees via email, trees@highswartz.com or Elizabeth Early via email, eearly@highswartz.com.

The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances.  The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation

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