Earlier this year, Baldwinsville Central School District Superintendent Matt McDonald decided to something different in terms of the district’s legal services: while most districts have a large firm on retainer and contract their services as necessary, McDonald went to the board of education and asked to hire a staff attorney.
“[I was looking] to kind of expand our horizons a little bit,” McDonald said at the latest Coffee and Conversations event, held May 10 at the Baldwinsville Public Library. “We pay a lot of money for the services of attorneys — $100,000-plus a year. So, I said let’s give it a shot.”
The district hired Eric Wilson, formerly of Ferrara, Fiorenza, Larrison, Barrett and Reitz, P.C. Wilson also serves as the district’s director of staff services.
“Really, the big piece of what he does as our school attorney is represents us in everything… with the exception of construction, anything with capital project-type things,” McDonald said.
Wilson, who formerly served as in-house counsel for the Syracuse City School District, was the main speaker at Thursday’s event, detailing the many areas of school law.
“Schools are like microcosms. They’re like small cities in a way,” Wilson said. “You see all the same things you would see. You kind of have to be a general practitioner, because you touch a lot of different areas in the law.”
One of the main areas of the law school attorneys deal with, Wilson said, is constitutional law.
“We have issues, for instance, of student and staff freedom of speech,” he said. He pointed to the precedent-setting Tinker v. Des Moines case, in which a group of students sued after being ordered to remove black arm bands they wore to protest the Vietnam War. Ultimately the Supreme Court decided the students could wear the arm bands, as they were not disruptive to other students.
“The test has become that [schools are] regulating student speech because it is disruptive to the educational process,” Wilson said. “There’s been a series of progeny cases, cases that come from that particular line.”
He cited a case from Weedsport in which a student drew a picture showing his teacher being shot. While the drawing didn’t disrupt the educational process, it did represent a “true threat.”
“That first extended the ability of schools to regulate speech to things that are true threats, which is a very timely issue,” Wilson said. “Right now, if you read the newspaper on any given day or, more appropriately, if you read the internet, you’ll see that some kid somewhere in the area, just about once or twice a week, is being arrested for making threats. So, again, that’s a First Amendment issue.”
Other First Amendment issues stem from violations of religious freedom. For example, schools have to allow all groups, regardless of their religious affiliation, use their buildings after hours, if that is their policy.
“As long as it’s not during the school day, it’s after school hours, people are not going to confuse the use of the school building by a religious group, a religious organization, for a prayer service with the endorsement of any particular religion,” Wilson said.
The Fourth Amendment is a little murkier. While kids are protected from unreasonable search and seizure of personal property — say, cell phones — lockers and desks are a different story.
“We tell kids you have no reasonable expectation of privacy in your locker. Your locker belongs to the school,” Wilson said. “We can search it, okay?”
Wilson said the most important constitutional protection afforded a student, by both the state and federal governments, is the right to an education. Wilson said each student facing disciplinary action is guaranteed due process before they are deprived of that right via suspension.
“Education is not a privilege. It’s not something that we give to good kids,” Wilson said. “It is an absolute right that every child in the United States of America under the U.S. Constitution and New York state under the New York State Constitution has.”
Other areas of the law Wilson deals with include labor, contract administration, federal and state anti-discrimination, health and safety, transportation and special education. He said he does something different every day.
“It’s fun. It’s fun because you get to be in schools. It’s fun because it’s a lot of client contact,” Wilson said. “You are with adults, helping them solve their problems, real problems for kids often. It’s all those different areas of the law. You’re not sitting just doing one thing all day. You’re not just closing on houses. You’re not just doing bank transactions. You’re really all over the place in terms of these different areas of the law.”
Wilson and McDonald said more districts are moving towards having a school attorney instead of contracting out for legal services.
“Bigger districts, it’s a possibility,” Wilson said. “Most of the bigger city school districts have some form of in-house counsel. BOCES has moved to that, largely. West Genesee has an in house attorney. It’s larger districts. The smaller districts can’t.”
McDonald said having a staff attorney makes it a lot faster and easier to resolve issues that come up during the day.
“It’s getting more and more complicated with the student issues, social media,” he said. “Having an attorney right there is a blessing.”
The final Coffee and Conversation of the 2017-18 school year will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 6, at the Baldwinsville Public Library. The speaker will be BCSD Athletic Director Chris Campolieta.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.