There may be many factors that influence a parent's decision to enroll their child at a Catholic private school. For some, the desire for a Catholic education supersedes all other considerations. For others, the promise of smaller class sizes with favorable student-to-teacher ratios is a priority. Some Catholic private schools offer a varied course curriculum with increased academic electives, and some private schools may provide their students with numerous extracurricular activities and assorted team sports.
But there are other important aspects of attending a Catholic private school that many parents—and their student child—may overlook. And these elements pertain to student rights, the parent and student handbook, codes of conduct, and disciplinary policies.
Catholic Church: The World's Largest Non-Governmental Provider of Education
The Catholic Church is the world’s largest non-governmental provider of education, consisting of more than 43,800 secondary schools and more than 95,000 primary schools. The Catholic Church has also established numerous universities in the United States and worldwide. Catholic private schools offer religious education along with secular subjects, and are open to students of all faiths and backgrounds.
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic education in the United States dates as far back as at least 1606, with the Catholic faith in the United States first spreading through the work of missionaries in the 1600s.
With the rise of Catholic immigration in the United States in the mid-1800s came a growing interest in the need for Catholic education in the country. Catholics in the United States opened their own schools with support from various religious orders, and these schools served the growing Catholic immigrant communities.
Catholic universities were founded at this time, including Fordham University, which was founded in New York City in 1841, the University of Notre Dame, founded in Indiana in 1842, and the Catholic University of America, founded in Washington in 1887.
More recently, Catholic private schools have been hit hard financially. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 left Catholic schools nationwide struggling to keep the doors open, according to The Wall Street Journal. Financial losses incurred during the pandemic left many families of Catholic private school students unable to pay their tuition bills, and churches do not have the extra funds needed to cover the budget gap.
According to the National Catholic Educational Association, at least 209 of the country's nearly 6,000 Catholic schools have closed over the past year, with more closures expected this summer. Nationwide, Catholic school enrollment fell 6.4% at the beginning of the 2021 school year, the largest single-year decline since the 1970s when data collection on enrollment began. Dioceses in urban areas have seen the greatest drop in enrollment. In Catholic private schools run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, enrollment was down 12% at the start of the 2021 school year. Enrollment in Catholic private schools in the Archdiocese of New York was down 11% at the beginning of the 2021 school year.
Catholic Private Schools vs. Public Schools
The decision regarding where to send one's child to school weighs heavily on many parents. School vouchers, education tax credits, scholarships, and other financial assistance have provided many families with broader educational opportunities beyond the public school.
There are a variety of reasons why parents may choose to send their student child to a Catholic private school. According to the Johns Hopkins School of Education Institute for Education Policy, one of those reasons is because many parents believe that their children will receive a stronger academic education at a Catholic private school than at a public school.
In their report, Is the “Catholic School Effect” Real? New Research Challenges the Catholic Primary School Advantage, the Institute found that while children at Catholic primary schools may achieve higher test scores, on average, than those of their peers who attend public schools, the main question is whether a higher test score is a result of the so-called “school effect.” This “school effect” refers to independent factors that are either intrinsic to the schools themselves, or are related to parent education, parent income, and the school selection process itself. The report indicates that separating these factors is a difficult task.
Differences Between Private Catholic Schools and Public Schools
The obvious difference between Catholic private schools and public schools is that Catholic schools offer a religious education in addition to the secular—non religious—subjects that are offered at public schools. But there are other differences as well which have a significant impact on the education and student experience at a Catholic private school. And it comes down to money.
Public schools receive funding from the education departments of their state and local governments. Taxpayer money funds public schools and, as such, public schools have to answer to state and local governments. The regulations of a public school must comply with the regulations of the state and local governments that are funding them.
Catholic private schools, on the other hand, do not receive the same level of funding from the state. To pay for the cost of running the Catholic private school and paying for the teachers' salaries, Catholic private schools charge tuition. The difference in funding between public schools and Catholic private schools has a more far-reaching impact than merely how things are paid for.
Because Catholic private schools are not funded by the state and local governments, Catholic private schools do not need to comply with state and local government regulations nor do they have to offer the same due process that is afforded students at public schools. Catholic private schools are not required to provide the same protections for individual student rights. To some degree, Catholic private schools can make their own rules because they are private institutions.
Students' Rights at Catholic Private Schools
Most students—and their parents—do not give much thought to the rights of a student at school. There is an assumption that all students have the same basic rights and protections under the law, regardless of what school they are enrolled in. But this is not the case. Students at private schools are not afforded the same rights as students at public schools. This is an important distinction, and it can affect a student's life well beyond their time at the school.
Students at Catholic private schools are not guaranteed the right to defend themselves against any charges brought against them, and they may not be afforded an appeals process. Catholic private school students may not have the opportunity to participate in a formal hearing regarding the evidence brought against them. In fact, the Catholic private school may not even conduct an investigation into the allegations at all.
Rights of Teachers at Catholic Private Schools
Just as the rights of students at Catholic private schools differ from the rights of students at public schools, the rights of teachers at Catholic private schools also differ from those afforded their counterparts at public schools.
Teachers at Catholic private schools may or may not be required to have teaching certification, unlike public school teachers who must be certified. Removing teachers at public schools is very challenging, as public school teachers have certain protections under the law. Catholic private school teachers often have renewable employment contracts. So removing a teacher at a Catholic private school is more straightforward and can be done by simply failing to renew the teacher's contract.
Other protections for teachers may be different as well. In July of 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States—in a 7-to-2 ruling—said that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers at church-run schools whose duties include religious instruction.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing the majority opinion, said that the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom forbids judges from interfering in the internal workings of religious institutions:
“When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school's independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”
Students and teachers at Catholic private schools are bound to the policies agreed to upon their enrollment or, in the case of teachers, outlined in their employment contracts with the schools.
Catholic Private Schools and Parent & Student Handbooks
For the most part, all students—whether they are enrolled at public schools or Catholic private schools—receive some form of a student handbook at the start of each school year. These student handbooks outline all the policies and codes of conduct at the school, from the standard school hours and dress codes to policies regarding tardiness, absences, appropriate language, and more.
The codes of conduct outlined in a Catholic private school's Parent & Student Handbook are intended to delineate the school's expectations for students and teachers and explain the disciplinary actions that may be taken for any infractions.
When accepting admittance to a Catholic private school, a student and their parents must sign the acknowledgment form in the school's Parent & Student Handbook. In doing so, the students and parents acknowledge the receipt of, complete review of, and commitment to adhere to all the policies and procedures stated in the Parent & Student Handbook. This acknowledgment enters both parties—parent/student and school—into a legal, binding contract, and this plays an important role when it comes to disciplinary infractions.
Due Process at Private Catholic Schools
Due process—the right to have a legal matter resolved based on certain rules and principles which protect the rights of individuals—is important when considering disciplinary infractions at Catholic private schools.
Schools that are funded by state and local governments—such as public schools—must comply with a student's constitutional rights of due process in disciplinary matters as outlined in the fourth and fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Public school students also have the right to defend themselves against allegations.
Private schools are not funded by state and local government regulations, so they are not bound by the same laws. The Center for Public Education contrasts the difference between due process for students at public schools compared to students at private schools as follows:
“The hurdles erected by the U. S. Constitution's Fourth and Fifth Amendments are exclusive to the nation's public schools. Private K-12 institutions have far more leeway to conduct unfettered investigations, withhold findings if they choose, and unceremoniously ask a student or faculty member to leave. Tuition and employment contracts rule private school relationships, while America's social compact and legal contract (the Constitution) governs how public officials must act.”
Students of Catholic private schools—and their parents—give up the right to due process when they accept admittance to the school. In accepting admittance and acknowledging the codes and policies outlined in the Parent & Student Handbook, they relinquish that right.
Disciplinary Policies at Catholic Private Schools
Every private school—whether they are a Catholic private school or not—can establish their own disciplinary policies because private schools are independent educational institutions. And there is quite a bit of latitude for interpreting and implementing disciplinary measures.
It is in this grey area surrounding student code violations—and the disciplinary measures that are enacted as a result—that disputes and legal action emerge. Catholic private school students may be accused of wrongdoing and issued a penalty without ever being formally informed of the allegation by the school. These private school students may not be entitled to a thorough investigation of the charges against them. They also may be denied a hearing under the policies of their Catholic private school.
To understand the level of discretion afforded Catholic private schools in addressing student conduct, consider All Saint's Catholic School in Juniper, Florida. At All Saint's Catholic School, the Parent & Student Handbook for the academic year 2020-21 includes the following statement regarding their disciplinary policies:
“The disciplinary policies and procedures set forth in the Parent-Student Handbooks are to provide guidelines that the school may, in its discretion, employ in regulating student conduct. They do not, however, limit the school's right to freely and fully exercise any and all disciplinary measures, with or without prior notice or warning, including expulsion from school at the sole discretion of the school administration.”
Serious Conduct Violations at Catholic Private Schools
Some student code of conduct violations may be treated with a warning or detention. Other, more serious student code violations result in stiffer penalties. Each Catholic private school operates independently, and the policies for disciplinary infractions vary from one school to another.
For the most part, the following conduct violations are considered serious:
- drug possession
- alcohol possession
- selling drugs on school property
- threatening the safety of another student or a faculty member
- assault (including sexual assault) against another student or a faculty member
- hate crimes
- vandalizing school property
Individual Catholic private schools may consider other school code violations to be serious and discipline those infractions accordingly. For a full understanding of a school's code of conduct, it is best to consult the school's handbook and disciplinary policy.
Disciplinary Penalties at Catholic Private Schools
Catholic private schools may impose a broad range of disciplinary actions for conduct code violations, and overall the penalties are often harsher than those imposed at public schools. For example, serious offenses at Catholic private schools may bring any of the following penalties and more:
- loss of scholarship
- permanent note on academic record
- loss of tuition
- disciplinary probation
- academic probation
- loss of campus housing
- transfer to a disciplinary educational program
- expensive restitution requirements
Catholic private school code of conduct violations should not be taken lightly. The consequences of infractions can have a broader impact on a student's life than whether or not they can attend the upcoming pep rally. Permanent marks on a student's academic record can get in the way of future educational opportunities, internships, and employment prospects. If your child is facing a code of conduct violation at a Catholic private school, it is best to consult with a knowledgeable attorney-advisor who has experience in this area.
Zero-Tolerance Policies in Schools
The 1990s and 2000s raised new questions among educators, parents, courts, law enforcement agencies, governments, and the general public regarding student discipline and conduct. Serious crimes conducted by juveniles in the late 1990s prompted these considerations and generated a heightened focus on the measures taken by public schools to confront these problems.
Legal concerns regarding students' rights were often in conflict with the measures that were adopted at schools. There was substantial controversy surrounding zero-tolerance policies, which were adopted at many schools to address disciplinary issues and ensure the safety of a school's learning environment while providing students with opportunities to learn.
The American Psychological Association convened a Zero Tolerance Task Force to evaluate the evidence for this disciplinary approach and to make appropriate recommendations regarding these policies and practices. The American Psychological Association issued a report that offers recommendations for reforming zero-tolerance policies where its implementation is necessary. The report also offers alternative practices to replace zero-tolerance policies where a more appropriate approach is warranted.
What To Do If You Are Accused of a Code of Conduct Violation at a Catholic Private School
If you are accused of a code of conduct violation at a Catholic private school, you may or may not receive notification of the allegation, depending upon the school. And you may or may not have the opportunity to defend yourself. However, there are a few things to do that can help your situation if you are accused of wrongdoing at a Catholic private school, including:
- Take the allegation seriously
- Do not talk about the allegation with friends
- Do not discuss the allegation with teachers or school administrators
- Do not post any comments about the allegation of wrongdoing on social media
- Consult with an attorney-advisor who has demonstrated experience handling cases of wrongdoing at Catholic private schools
- Only speak to your attorney-advisor and parents regarding the allegation, until your attorney-advisor informs you otherwise
- Learn your rights as outlined in your school's code of conduct
- Actively participate in your defense by openly sharing information with your attorney-advisor
Knowledgeable Attorney-Advisor Experienced In Handling Catholic Private School Code of Conduct Violations
Children are taught at a young age that there are consequences for breaking the rules, whether those are rules established by your family, their school, or the laws of society. But sometimes—in doling out the consequences for certain behaviors—an individual's rights are violated in the process. What exactly are the rights of students at Catholic private schools? What about due process for private school students? Is the penalty being carried out by your student's Catholic private school appropriate for the alleged infraction?
These are important questions. And students—and their parents—deserve clear-cut answers. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm believe in open, honest, clear communication. Attorney Lento explains your rights, reviews the evidence brought against you by the school, advises you of your legal options regarding hearings, appeals, and other measures, and develops a skilled, strategic defense of the charge brought against you.
Attorney Lento has successfully handled hundreds of Code of Conduct cases at both Catholic private schools and public schools, and Attorney Lento is dedicated to fighting on behalf of his clients to achieve the most favorable outcome in each case. Find out how Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm can help your case. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 or contact us online to arrange for a confidential consultation.