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Be Careful Out There

[September 3, 2014]  As independent schools, colleges and universities begin the academic year, looking forward to teaching, learning, and growth in the coming year, I want to remind everyone to “Be careful out there!”

In the wake of the Penn State-Sandusky story years ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks offered a sobering reminder that “[u]nfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption [that we will do the right thing in a moment of crisis]. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.”

For that reason alone, we strongly encourage schools to train themselves (students, faculty, and staff) on the kinds of behaviors that are expected at your school, and the kinds of behaviors that are unacceptable. For all educational institutions, this training is an excellent idea.

Now – early in the new academic year – is an ideal time for it. This past July, a New York Times article described the most dangerous stretch for new college students: “the Red Zone, a period of vulnerability for sexual assaults, beginning when freshmen first walk onto campus until Thanksgiving break.”

Of course, for colleges and universities, and other schools that receive federal funding, much of this sort of training is also legally required, under Title IX.

However, age-appropriate training for all students is increasingly recognized as a now-obvious “best practice.” A recent article in the Boston Globe extols the virtues of in-person training, even in middle school, to educate students earlier in their development and maturation: “we should be sending the message earlier — reaching boys in middle school, when the hormones kick in.”

Many SHPC attorneys have just returned from conducting these kinds of trainings for schools (e.g., boundary training for faculty and staff; and anti-bullying, cyber-bullying and appropriate use of social media training for middle school and high school students). These training programs are incredibly well-received by not only the schools, faculty, and staff – but also by the students – as these seminars provide a safe place to talk about challenging situations and sensitive topics.

 So, as you look forward to a fantastic year, remember to protect your students, and faculty and staff, as well. Not only during the Red Zone (between now and Thanksgiving), but also for the entire year.

Remind everyone what it means to be careful out there. That way, if something bad does happen, someone among your students, faculty and staff will really see it and know what to do about it.

Getting Your Head In The Game: School Concussion Policies And Protocols

[August 21, 2014]  With the beginning of the academic year underway or imminent, many students are returning to campus for pre-season athletic training. This school year, however, many schools and student-athletes will be governed by new (and perhaps improved) concussion protocols.

Combatting concussions has become a forefront issue in school athletics. Across the nation, legislatures, student athletic associations, and schools are responding to the demand for more comprehensive concussion policies to better protect student-athletes. Indeed, as of January 2014, every state and the District of Columbia had passed legislation regulating the prevention and management of student-athlete traumatic head injuries. In March, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) released a new position statement on the management of sports concussions and offered comprehensive guidelines. And just over the summer, California’s governor signed a law that not only limits the number of tackling practice sessions for young football players—to only two, 90-minute full-contact practices per season—but the law also requires one week on the bench for all student-athletes who suffer a concussion.

Although concussion management laws vary from state-to-state, they generally share three pillars—a return-to-play rule, an informed consent requirement, and an education and training obligation. The return-to-play rules regulate the circumstances in which a student-athlete suspected of having a concussion or head injury must be removed from play and when he or she can resume participating in athletics.

Baseline testing is another tool to help manage sports-related concussions. By requiring students to have a pre-season exam to measure balance and brain functioning, medical professionals can better identify and diagnose post-exam head injuries. While no states currently require baseline testing, Rhode Island strongly encourages all youth sports programs (including those operated by private schools) to adopt the practice; and Massachusetts requires public schools and schools that are members of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to mandate that student-athletes provide head injury medical histories.

At independent schools, administrators, coaches, medical support personnel, students, and parents all play a significant role in protecting student-athletes. To help achieve their goal, we recommend including the following components in a comprehensive head injury policy:

  • An action plan policy for all students participating in interscholastic athletics;
  • Protocols for head injuries, including Return to Activity guidelines;
  • Education for parents and students, coaches, medical support employees, and other relevant persons about recognizing and managing traumatic head injuries;
  • Requests for student-athlete head injury histories;
  • Mandatory baseline testing for all student-athletes;
  • Recordkeeping of all head injuries occurring on and off campus; and
  • Policies for students who are suffering from concussions.

In addition, we recommend updating Athletics Handbooks to address concussion management and other issues such as medical emergencies, practice guidelines, and academic policies related to participation in athletics.

Please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Firm’s Education Practice Group if you have any questions about best practices for student-athlete head injury policies and protocols.

Some Closely Held For-Profits Exempt From ACA Contraceptive Mandate

[July 23, 2014]  On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court held, 5-4, that closely held for-profit corporations whose owners have sincerely held religious beliefs opposing contraception need not comply with the contraception mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), which requires employers to provide coverage for all FDA-approved contraceptive methods.  Specifically, the Court ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”) shields such for-profits from providing coverage for contraception methods they find objectionable.

The case was brought by family-owned Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and another closely held corporation.  Hobby Lobby is controlled exclusively by a married couple and their adult children; each family member has signed a pledge to run the businesses in accordance with the family’s religious beliefs and to use the family assets to support Christian ministries.

Hobby Lobby filed suit under RFRA, which prohibits the federal government from taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion unless that action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.  Hobby Lobby sought to enjoin application of the ACA’s contraceptive mandate with respect to four contraceptives:  two forms of “morning after” pills and two types of intrauterine devices.  (Hobby Lobby did not object to the other sixteen contraceptives required by the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, including birth control pills.)

The Supreme Court held that for-profit corporations are “persons” within the meaning of RFRA’s free exercise protections and that the challenged regulations substantially burden Hobby Lobby’s exercise of religion. (In support of finding substantial burden, the Court noted that the penalty on Hobby Lobby for providing a non-compliant health plan would equal about $475 million per year, and the penalty for failing to provide health coverage would equal about $26 million per year.)

The Court further concluded that the ACA contraceptive mandate was not the “least restrictive means” of furthering a compelling governmental interest.  The Court explained that the most straightforward way of ensuring coverage for all women “would be for the Government to assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any women who are unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers’ religious objections.”  Concurring with the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy noted that the government is already doing this for nonprofit religious organizations.  (However, that system has also been challenged in a separate pending litigation.)

The Court indicated that its decision should be read narrowly:  the ruling only extends to closely held companies whose owners have sincerely held religious beliefs opposing contraception, and does not apply to vaccinations, blood transfusions, etc.  However, Justice Ginsburg, dissenting, argued that corporations will inevitably use the decision to opt out of other laws with which they disagree.

In light of this decision, closely-held employers may wish to consider whether to object to the ACA’s contraception mandate, if their owners have sincerely held religious beliefs opposing contraception.  Publicly-traded companies could seek to expand the Supreme Court’s decision.

Updated COBRA Notices Provide Information About Obamacare Options

[June 9, 2014]  On May 2, 2014, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) released proposed regulations containing new model notices pursuant to the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (“COBRA”).  The new notices inform workers that they may purchase coverage through the health insurance exchanges established pursuant to the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) and that such coverage may be less expensive than COBRA continuation coverage.

In general, administrators for group health plans must issue two types of notices pursuant to COBRA:  1) a “general” notice when a participant initially becomes covered under the plan; and 2) an “election” notice when a participant experiences a COBRA qualifying event.  The new regulations revise both the model general notice and the model election notice by including information about the ACA.

The model general notice instructs employees that health coverage may be more affordable when purchased through an ACA exchange, and it directs them to the ACA health exchange website.  The model election notice contains detailed information, through a question and answer format, about the ACA, including where and when to enroll in coverage, whether an employee can switch between COBRA and ACA coverage, and factors to consider when choosing coverage, including severance provisions, access to current providers, and prescription coverage.

Even though the open enrollment period for ACA coverage has closed, people with COBRA insurance have a special enrollment period to obtain coverage through the federal ACA exchange:  they may enroll by July 1, 2014.  The Department of Health and Human Services established the special enrollment period because the former model COBRA notices did not sufficiently address ACA options.

Although plan administrators are not required to use the model notices, such use is considered good faith compliance with the notice requirements of COBRA.  Thus, we advise using the updated models immediately.

Home Sweet Home: It May Not Be So Sweet…

[May 12, 2014]  The media and the government are both paying more attention, and we urge educational administrators to take a second look as well.

The question is whether independent schools, colleges and universities are obligated to treat the rental value and utility costs of a school-owned residence, occupied by a school employee (e.g., Head of School, faculty member), as a component of the employee’s gross taxable income.  In other words, may the school provide housing to the employee as a tax-free benefit, or must the school report the value of the housing benefit on the employee’s W-2 form?

Under the applicable federal legal standard, the default is that an educational institution is obligated to include the rental value and utility cost of the employee’s house provided by the school within his or her gross income, unless the school’s housing arrangement satisfies a “three criteria test.”  The test is whether:  (i) the school’s housing is furnished on the school premises; (ii) the school’s housing is furnished for the convenience of the school; and (iii) the employee is required to accept such housing arrangement as a condition of employment.  Or, alternatively, the school falls within the “qualified campus lodging” exception (i.e., the school’s housing is located on campus, furnished for use as a residence, and the employee pays an adequate rent).

The prongs of these tests are not always easy to satisfy – especially in the context of a day school (non-boarding).  Historically, on-campus housing has been a fabulous perk for educational leaders.  Today, the regulatory environment is such that a formal legal opinion should be rendered as to the taxability of the benefit.  It is no longer sufficient to simply recite that on-campus residence is a requirement of the job – a stronger rationale may be required by the government to satisfy a non-taxable benefit.

In addition, it is important to note that state laws do not always mirror the federal law.  For example, New Jersey tax law uses the three criteria test and does not recognize the “qualified campus lodging” alternative.  Thus, the “qualified campus lodging” benefit could be tax-free for federal purposes, but still taxable for New Jersey purposes.

Analyzing the excludability of housing benefits from an employee’s gross income is highly fact-intensive.  We recommend carefully evaluating the school’s housing arrangement in light of applicable federal and state laws.