Getting It Write: Does Your Student Handbook Create A Contract?

[April 29, 2013]  In a stark reminder for schools across the country, a federal court in Massachusetts recently allowed a lawsuit to go to trial on the question of whether an independent school breached its contract with a student by failing to follow the school’s student handbook. The Judge opined as follows: “the policies, regulations and procedures contained in the student handbook are contractual in nature and binding on the school and its students.”

At the Firm, we are seeing a significant increase in cases around the country brought under similar theories.  For instance, one of our school clients was recently sued (as well as the Head of School, Associate Head of School, Head of the Upper School, Board Chair and athletic coach), on a theory that the bullying plan was contractual as it was included in the student handbook, which the family alleged created a contract.

As school winds down for the year, now is the time to ensure that your student handbook is accomplishing the goals that you have established.  We urge you to contemplate these questions:

  • Do you want your students to be required to follow the student handbook?
  • Do you want your school to be required to follow the student handbook?
  • Do your students and/or parents sign an acknowledgment form for the student handbook?  If so, does the acknowledgment form create a contract or not?
  • Does your enrollment agreement reference the student handbook? If so, does it incorporate the student handbook into the enrollment agreement or simply reference it?

These questions should be considered within the context of relevant case law pertaining to student handbooks and student handbook disclaimers in each state.

We encourage each school to carefully contemplate the answers to these questions and to strive to ensure that all relevant school documents are coordinated in order to accomplish the school’s goals.

Please do not hesitate to contact us to discuss the interplay between your student handbook and the applicable state law that governs your student handbook.