1. Why is school law such an important part of the divorce process?
In many divorce cases the child’s education is a major issue. Unfortunately, many lawyers overlook school law issues in the separation agreement or in the judgment of divorce. A judgment of divorce should be carefully prepared to address the potential pitfalls that can arise in the future. In many cases a child may want to attend school in the district where the noncustodial parent lives. To avoid any potential legal problems with the school district, the judgment of divorce should specify that the child has two different domiciles. One domicile for the child is with the mother, and the other one is with the father.
The judgment of divorce also should provide that both parties should have equal access to the children’s school records. Although this issue appears to be straightforward, it is amazing how many divorced couples can make the simple task of copying school records for the noncustodial parent into a “Herculean” task.
A divorcing family also has to take into consideration busing issues if the child attends school out of the district where he or she lives. A school district has no legal obligation to provide busing for a student who lives out of the district.
Another issue that often arises in a divorce setting is the education of a child who has learning disabilities. A noncustodial parent should have language inserted into the judgment of divorce that grants him equal rights and responsibilities to make any decisions with regard to the Individual Education Plan (IEP) for the child. Moreover, the noncustodial parent should have language in the judgment of divorce that provides that he has equal access to all teachers, psychologists, and other school personnel to formulate any IEP plan for the child.
2. If a divorced couple has joint custody of a child, and if they both live in different townships, can the child attend school in either school district?
The key issue in this type of family law situation is the domicile of the parents. A domicile simply means where the parent lives. A child’s domicile is normally that of the parent. After a divorce or legal separation, the domicile of the child is that of the parent with whom the child lives. When life was simpler, it was much easier to determine the school district of enrollment for the child, and a divorce did not complicate this issue. “Back in the day” in most divorce cases the mother was the primary custodial parent. Moreover, the time spent with the other parent was clearly labeled as visitation time. In the new millennium there has been an explosion of joint custody and of customized living arrangements. Nothing is as “black and white” as it was in the past. In the today’s world every legal issue is a blurred set of facts and law.
To complicate matters even further the cost of educating a child in a local township is approximately $10,000 per year. The local school boards are under a tremendous pressure to save money. Moreover, if a school system has too many “illegal” students then this may create a budget crunch. We all know that the principals and the teachers don’t get raises if there is a budget crunch. Therefore, the local school boards really scrutinize whether a child is truly a resident of the township. As a result of the explosion of customized living arrangements, the local school boards and the courts often have to wrestle with the issue of a domicile for a child who comes from a divorced family.
A very important case is Somerville Board of Education v. Manville Board of Education, 332 N.J. Super. 6 (App. Div. 2000), aff’d, 167 55 (2001). Here, the concept of a domicile was re-examined in the context of a joint custody arrangement that involved a special education student whose residence was split equally between her parent’s home located in both Manville and nearby Somerville. The child alternated weeks back and forth with each parent. The issue before the court was which school district would pay for the out of district placement of the child at a special needs school. Before the child was placed, the child attended school in Somerville where the father lived. The school officials in Somerville and Manville had an oral agreement to share the cost for the special needs school on an alternating year basis. Thereafter, a new special education director in Manville refused to continue the arrangement on the grounds that the child was not domiciled in Manville.
After years of litigation, the case ultimately went up the New Jersey Supreme Court. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that both Somerville and Manville were the domiciles of the child. The court held that the oral agreement to share the costs for the special needs schools was enforceable, and it should be continued. The court further noted that the divorced parents shared equal parenting time under a joint custody arrangement. The child had an “alternating domicile.” Therefore, the court reinstated the cost-sharing agreement, and both districts had to pay for the cost of the special needs school.
In summary, it is common for a divorcing parent to change their residence, and those of their child during a school year. Most school boards are reasonable with the families. Most school boards have adopted reasonable policies that permit certain students whose families have moved out of the school district to remain enrolled through the end of the academic year. For example, some policies permit students in their senior year of high school to finish out the year if their families move out after a certain date. If a divorce case should happen to have this type of issue, then the parties should obtain a copy of the school district’s residency policy before any settlement as to custody and parenting plans are reached.
3. What are the consequences if a child is improperly enrolled into a school district?
For many reasons, many parents frequently attempt to enroll their child into the wrong school district. Most often the parents are dissatisfied with their own school district, and they want a better education for their child. In some cases a child is enrolled in a district where a grandparent or another relative lives. In other instances, a child may be enrolled in a district’s high profile athletic program. Whatever the reason, a parent who enrolls their children in the wrong school district, even with a good faith intent, can suffer severe financial consequences.
If a school official suspects that a student is not properly enrolled, then the student may be removed following a hearing before the Board of Education on notice to the family. See, N.J.A.C. 6A:22-4.3. The family has the right to appeal the Board’s decision to the Commissioner of Education. If the appeal is not successful then tuition may be assessed against the family for the period of the ineligible attempt. See, N.J.A.C. 6A:22-4.2(b)(6).
The bottom line is that educating a child has become tremendously expensive in New Jersey. Many school districts perform “door checks” and “park and wait” surveillance of homes to determine whether children actually reside at their stated home addressed. The bottom line is if your child(ren) switches school districts then you must have your legal paperwork in line. The divorced couple should execute a consent order that specifies that the child is attending a different school district. Consent orders are really simple to prepare, and they are very cost effective. No motions need to be filed as long as both parties sign the consent order. Filing motions can be very expensive, and they should be avoided if possible. As long as a person has a valid court order that specifies that the divorced couple has joint legal custody, then the school boards really can’t harass the family about residency issues.
In summary, some school districts strictly enforce the legal consequences if a child is improperly enrolled in the wrong school district. Illustrative is the case of A.L. and J.A. v. Board of Education of the Township of Bloomfield, Essex County, OAL Dkt. No. EDU-01854-03. In this case a couple lived together in Newark with their three children. The husband moved out and he relocated to the Township Bloomfield in the year of 2000. The parties were divorced in 2002. The wife remained in the marital home until it was eventually sold in 2003.
The husband then enrolled all three children in the Bloomfield school district for the 2002-2003 school year. The husband did not realize that the districts like many others in New Jersey, performs “door checks” and “park and wait” surveillance of the homes to determine whether the children actually reside at there. Based on substantial evidence that the children still resided in Newark, and the implausibility that they spent most of their time during the school year with their father and his live in girlfriend in a two-bedroom condo, the Administrative Law Judge assessed $16,116.66 in back tuition against the father. The case was then appealed to the Commissioner of Education, and it was upheld. Therefore, the father had to cut a check for $16,116.66 to the Township of Bloomfield to pay for back tuition for the children.
4. What is the “hardship exception?”
Children are sometimes forced to live temporarily with adults other than their parent, due to a family emergency or hardship. When this occurs as a result of a separation or divorce, the State Board of Education regulation provides several alternatives for enrolling the child in the district where the student resides. The most commonly used method is the so-called “affidavit pupil” procedure and it is described in N.J.A.C. 6A:22-3.2(a).
In summary, if a school district exerts “heat” on a family for an improper enrollment of a child, then the family will have to go through the “affidavit pupil” procedure. If this process is not successful, then the family should explore naming the relative or family friend where the child is residing as the formal legal guardian. The family has to go the local County Surrogate, and fill out the forms to appoint a guardian for the child. The procedure is not as complicated as it sounds.
5. I have been divorced for nearly five years. The school system where I live is terrible. Therefore, my son attends school where his father lives in the township next over. Does my child’s school district have to provide adequate busing for him?
The general rule is that school districts must provide free transportation to and from school for elementary school pupils who reside more than two miles from their assigned school, and for secondary school pupils who reside more than two and a half miles away. N.J.S.A. 18A:39-1. The schools may also provide transportation to a student who lives close to the school. However, these services are discretionary.
In many divorced families a key issue is who provides transportation for a child who has to travel out of the district to attend school. A school district is not legally obligated to provide transportation to a child who does not personally live in the district. N.J.A.C. 6A:22-3.11(a)(1)(ii)(2) provides:
No school district shall be required to provide transportation for a student residing outside the school district for part of the school year, other than that based upon the home of the parent domiciled within the district to the extent required by law, as a result of the being the district of domicile for school attendance purpose pursuant to the provisions of this subsection.
6. My ex-wife is a “demon” and she won’t give me a copy of our child’s report cards? Can I obtain these school records myself directly from the school?
This issue occurs all too much in divorced families. Quite frequently an upset ex-wife will not give her husband copies of any report cards or any other school records. This type of intransigence especially occurs if the husband is a “deadbeat dad,” or if he is a “slow pay” with regard to child support. Access to school records and the decision-making process is difficult enough for intact families, but it is especially challenging for a noncustodial parent.
A review of the law indicates that a parent has no federal constitutional right of access to school officials or to participate in their child’s education decisions. While there may be no constitutional right of access to student records or school personnel, state and federal statues and regulations do assure that the noncustodial parent has a meaningful opportunity to secure vital information about their child’s education.
Student records are governed generally by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S. 1232, and 34 C.F.R. Part 99, and the corresponding regulations of the State Board of Education, N.J.A.C. 6A:32-7.5(e)(1). The term “student record” generally includes grades, disciplinary histories, and health records. N.J.S.A. 9:2-4-2 provides:
In closing, all parents have federal and state rights to have access to their child’s school records. However, access to records is one thing. A noncustodial parent’s access to the teachers and participation in the decision-making process involving their child is quite another. The weight of the case law holds that a noncustodial parent’s involvement in educational decisions is a matter of family law, and it is governed by the parties divorce judgment or written agreement. In most cases, the school districts rely on the authority if the primary custodial parent to make decision concerning the child, notwithstanding the disagreement of the noncustodial parent.
In summary, if an ex-spouse is not providing you with copies of your child’s report cards and other school records, then simply write a certified letter to your child’s school principal. The letter should be sent certified and it should be typed. The letter should request that all of the child’s school records, include, grades, disciplinary histories and health records should be sent. The school is required by New Jersey law to provide the noncustodial parent with the records. Unfortunately, if a noncustodial parent tries to have access to the teachers, then this might pose a problem. Many teachers don’t want to get in the middle between two “warring” ex-spouses.
If a teacher “blows off” a noncustodial parent, then it might be necessary to go back to court. The noncustodial parent might have to try to obtain a court order that “expands” the noncustodial parent’s role with regard to the educational decisions for the child. A teacher can’t ignore such a court order if it obtained. If a court order expands a noncustodial parent’s role in making the child’s educational decisions, then the teacher will have to cooperate.
7. I believe that my ex-wife is abusing our son, and he often goes to school with marks on his arms and fact. What are the child abuse reporting requirements imposed on a school and on the teachers?
In many nasty divorce cases it is quite common for a noncustodial parent to file a child abuse complaint against their former spouse. The majority DYFS of complaints that are filed by former spouses have no merit. Many DYFS complaints made by a former spouse are made with the sole purpose to harass and annoy their former partner. Unfortunately, the filing of a DYFS complaint often starts a “perfect storm” to create a severely dysfunctional family. DYFS has to open up a file for every referral that it receives. Moreover, once a DYFS referral is made, then the parent that is accused of child abuse must also be interviewed. This can be a very stressful and embarrassing experience. Once again, most of the DYFS complaints made by a noncustodial parent are baseless. However, even baseless DYFS complaints have to be addressed, and they can create tremendous stress and aggravation.
Only a very small percentage of DYFS complaints have some merit to them. If a child has some marks on him from being abused by a custodial parent, then the school system has an obligation to report this incident to DYFS. Moreover, a child may discuss possibly being abused to a teacher at his or her school. If a teacher or any other school personnel is informed of any type of abuse then it must also be reported to DYFS.
There are some stringent requirements that are imposed on school personnel under N.J.S.A. 9:6.10. The law is entitled “Reports of Child Abuse.” This law provides in pertinent part:
Any person having reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse or acts of child abuse shall report the same immediately to the Division of Youth and Family Services by telephone or otherwise. Such reports, where possible, shall contain the names and addresses of the child and his parent, guardian, or their person having custody and control of the child and if known, the child’s age, the nature and possible extent of the child’s injuries, abuse or maltreatment, including any evidence of previous injuries, abuse or maltreatment, and any other information that the person believes may be helpful with respect to the child abuse and the identity of the perpetrator.
This is a personal duty that is imposed on each school employee. The failure to comply with this duty may expose the teacher or school employee to prosecution as a disorderly person. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.14.
8. How do the special education laws deal with a divorced couple over the issue of educating a child who has learning disabilities?
Children who have learning disabilities enjoy a wide range of benefits under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. 1400 to 1487. The key to the implementation of the IDEA is an individualized educational plan (IEP). This is a document that is developed collaboratively each year by the school officials and the parents. This report describes the child’s problem, placement, goals and objections. If there is a disagreement over the terms of the IEP, the IDEA and the New Jersey State Board of Education regulations provide a speedy hearing process before an Administrative Law Judge of the Office of Administrative Law.
In many divorced families there is a great deal of disagreement as to how to educate a child who may have learning disabilities. One parent may totally disagree with any classification of a child as having a learning disability. Meanwhile, the other parent may completely agree with the classification made by the school. A leading case on this issue is Navin v. Park Ridge School District, 270 F. 3d 1147 (7th Cir. 2001). Here, a noncustodial father sought to invalidate a school district’s Education program for his disabled child. The Seventh Circuit dismissed the father’s case. The court held that even though the divorce judgment preserved some important rights for the father, including the right to be informed about and remain involved in his son’s education, the mother’s view would prevail if the parents disagreed about educational decisions. The court further held that the father could not use the IDEA to upset the choice committed to the mother’s discretion by the state court.
The New Jersey courts also takes a similar approach. In the case of L.T. and C.T. v. Denville Township Board of Education, the parties divorce judgment provided:
Both parties shall have complete access to the …. school records of their child. Both parties shall have the right to communicate with the child’s teachers …. school official and other individuals so as to give full force and effect to each parent’s right to have complete access to the information set forth about. [The father] has the right to counsel with [the mother] with respect to major decisions regarding the children, such as …….. major schooling decisions, by telephone or mail. However, after considering [the father’s] input with respect to these major decisions, the right to make these decisions regarding the children is left to [the mother].
The father filed a petition to the Office of the Administrative Law for a due process hearing. The father claimed that his son’s special education program was inappropriate. The father relied on the terms of the divorce judgment and he cited the Navin case. The ALJ held that the father had no legal authority to change the school district’s actions without the mother’s consent.
In summary, if there is a divorce that involves the parenting of a special needs child, then careful attention to the parenting details must be placed into the judgment of divorce. The judgment of divorce should provide that the noncustodial parent has equal rights to collaborate to create an IEP for the child. Moreover, the judgment of divorce should also provide that the noncustodial parent shall have equal access to all teachers, therapists, and guidance counselors. Finally, the judgment of divorce also should provide that the noncustodial parent shall have equal rights to make any educational decisions for the special needs child.