E-mail Communications: A Primer for Educators

It is probably safe to assume that every independent school currently provides its employees with e-mail  service. The advent of e-mail technology has dramatically improved the efficient dissemination of  information to and between school administrators, teachers, staff, parents and students. Our current culture is one in which the e-mail has, to a significant extent, replaced what in the past would have involved direct conversation either in person or via telephone. While the ease and effectiveness of e-mail communication is a clear benefit to all members of the school community, this benefit is accompanied by the risk of potential  exposure faced at the hand of their written word. Misguided use of e-mail communication can be damaging to all members of the school community and can subject the school, teachers and administrators to unintended liability and costly litigation. Clearly, independent schools have a strong interest in educating teachers and administrators regarding the proper usage and content of e-mail communications concerning their students.

There is a common misperception among teachers, administrators, parents, and students that e-mail  messages are private. To the contrary, once an e-mail is sent, the sender can no longer control the e-mail’s destiny and the e-mail is no longer private. In addition, the sent e-mail does not “evaporate” – instead, it is  memorialized for “all time” in the sender’s and the recipient’s computer hard drives even if the e-mail is deleted by both parties. Deleted or stored e-mails that at one point seemed innocuous can later be recovered and removed from their original context, supporting an action against the school by a dissatisfied parent and student. Such e-mails are readily used against schools, administrators and teachers in resulting litigation.

For this reason, it is important for all teachers and administrators to take care in sending e-mails related to students and issues affecting students. Exercise caution when sending e-mails to parents or to other educators relating to student behavior, student discipline, student academic performance and school policy issues. These categories of communication are best left to discussion in person or via telephone in order to  promote clear understanding of the issues and to prevent misinterpretation or the removal of words from their intended context. When in doubt as to the appropriateness of a parent/student communication, the teacher or administrator should err on the side of caution in reviewing the matter with administration  and/or school counsel.

Although it is hoped that a school will never face litigation with students, parents or employees, it is prudent for educators to recognize that the risk exists and understand how to protect against it.

In litigation, federal and state rules of procedure require disclosure of all communications that may have any bearing on the lawsuit. For example, if a parent and/or student files suit against the school, any and all communications having anything to do with that student or the student’s education are subject to disclosure to the other side. That means that if an administrator, teacher or staff member has sent or received an e-mail that has any relevance to the lawsuit, it is potentially subject to disclosure.

While no teacher, administrator or school can ever guarantee that their written word will not be taken out  of context and used against them at some future point in time, you can take care in choosing the appropriate content and usage of e-mail communications by considering the following:

  • Teachers and administrators are professionals who reflect the attitudes and culture of the school. It is important that e-mails, whether sent internally or outside the school, reflect that professionalism and culture.
  • Use good e-mail etiquette in composing and sending every e-mail. Compose e-mails in a professional manner that would not cause embarrassment in the event of disclosure.
  • Keep in mind that e-mail communication can be used against the school, its administration and teachers in litigation.
  • Exercise caution when sending e-mails to parents or to other educators relating to student behavior, student discipline, student academic performance and school policy issues. These categories of communication are best left to discussion in person or via telephone, both to promote clear understanding of the issues and to prevent misinterpretation or the removal of words from their intended context.
  • When in doubt as to the appropriateness of a parent/student communication, the teacher or administrator should err on the side of caution in reviewing the matter with administration and/or school counsel.

By following these recommendations, schools, administrators and teachers can help ensure that their  professionalism and character will be reflected in their e-mail communications, while simultaneously promoting the health of their student/parent relationships and minimizing potential exposure for teachers, administrators and the school.