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Parental Notification Policies Keep Children Safe

The duty to notify parents arises from parents’ right to direct their children’s upbringing, care, and education.
Matt Sharp
Written by
A young mother talks on the phone while her child in her lap

“Mr. Sharp, your son fell on the playground and bruised his leg. Do we have your permission to give him an ibuprofen?”

It is a common call that parents receive during the school year. A caring teacher or school nurse reaches out to parents to notify them that their child suffered a minor injury, and they ask permission before administering something to help with the pain.

While most of us quickly thank the staff member for the call and approve the medication, we often overlook the importance of what that brief conversation represents—an acknowledgement that parents have the primary duty to make decisions about their child’s health and welfare.

This respect for the authority of parents over their children arises in many other settings: a parental permission slip before a child attends a field trip, a signed medical form before the child participates in sports, a parent’s signature on a report card.

Notifying parents is not just a common courtesy; it is a duty owed to parents by those to whom the parents temporarily entrust their child for educational purposes. When parents drop their child off at school each morning, they expect the school will call when something important happens that affects their child. If we expect the mechanic to notify us about a major problem with our car when we drop it off for a routine oil change, how much more should we expect school officials to notify us when they learn important information about our children during the school day?

In fact, the duty to notify parents is rooted in parents’ fundamental right to direct the upbringing, care, and education of their child. How can parents fulfill their duty and responsibility to raise their child properly if they are not notified when their child experiences a mental, emotional, medical, or educational challenge?

Parental rights depend on notification

Indeed, the duty to notify has been affirmed again and again in courts across the country. For example, in one case involving a high school swim coach who refused to notify the parents when a young female swimmer became pregnant, a federal court of appeals chastised the coach for “obstruct[ing] the parental right to choose the proper method of resolution” of this family crisis. “It is not educators, but parents who have primary rights in the upbringing of children,” explained the court, and “[s]chool officials have only a secondary responsibility and must respect these rights.”

And in a recent case filed by Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of a teacher in Kansas, the court enjoined a school policy that required the teacher to withhold information and refuse to notify parents about vital issues involving a child’s struggle with gender confusion. “It is difficult to envision why a school would even claim—much less how a school could establish— a generalized interest in withholding or concealing from the parents of minor children, information fundamental to a child’s identity, personhood, and mental and emotional well-being such as their preferred name and pronouns.”

Courts have even recognized that the duty to notify parents extends to the teaching of sensitive subject matters—such as discussions of gender identity. A Pennsylvania federal court held that parental rights require a school to give parents “realistic notice and the practical ability for parents to shield their young children from sensitive topics the parents believe to be inappropriate.”

Yet despite these court decisions, we continue to see schools across the country refuse to keep parents in the loop about their child’s well-being. Some even outright lie to parents—especially when it comes to encouraging a child to identify as a different gender and facilitating that “transition.”

A blueprint for parental notification policies

Now, more than ever, we need school boards respecting parental rights and following the law. And that means adopting strong parental notification and involvement policies. Such policies would require school personnel to immediately notify a parent if a child:

  • Experiences a severe mental, physical, or emotional health issue at school;
  • Is the target of, or is accused of engaging in, a pattern of bullying;
  • Feels discomfort or confusion about his or her biological sex, including wanting to identify as a different gender (such as by changing names or pronouns);
  • Suffers a significant drop in academic performance; or
  • Faces any other challenge at school that parents should be involved in resolving.

School boards looking for inspiration to adopt strong, pro-parent policies should follow the lead of states like Montana and Florida, which recently enacted parental notification and involvement laws, or Oklahoma and Virginia, where the respective Departments of Education issued proposed rules and policies that strengthen parental rights.

And despite what opponents may claim, such parental notification policies are supported—even required—by the U.S. Constitution, which courts have repeatedly affirmed protects the fundamental right of parents to raise and train their child.

Matt Sharp
Matt Sharp
Senior Counsel, Director of Center for Public Policy
Matt Sharp serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he is the director of the Center for Public Policy.