School district’s denial of non-custodial parent’s access to children while in school does not violate her rights under either U.S. or Iowa Constitutions

A federal district court in Iowa has ruled that a school district did not violate a non-custodial parent’s substantive due process, procedural due process, and equal protection rights under either the federal or state constitutions by refusing to allow her access to her children during school hours. When Lisa and Michael Schmidt divorced, the state court granting the dissolution of marriage decree  awarded both joint legal custody of their three children, and gave primary physical custody and care to Michael subject to Lisa’s visitation rights. A general schedule of visitation was provided for in the order specifying times when Lisa could exercise her visitation rights during select holidays and school breaks. The order provided for additional visitation only “as mutually agreed to by and between the parties so as not to interfere with the health, education, and welfare of the parties’ minor children.”

At the time all three children were students of Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS). DMPS had adopted a policy addressing the rights of custodial and non-custodial parents, which states: “The District will obey all court orders relating to custody issues and parental rights. Therefore, the rights afforded parents under the policy may be limited in any individual situation.”  Regarding releasing students from school to a noncustodial parent, the policy provides: “it shall be the custodial parent’s responsibility to provide the school district with documentation regarding any restrictions applicable to the non-custodial parent.” It defines a non-custodial parent as “a natural parent . . . who does not presently have primary responsibility for the day-to-day care and control of the student.”

After Lisa was denied access to her children while in school on several occasions, DMPS General Counsel Elizabeth Nigut sent an email to the principals of each of the schools the children were attending advising: “(1) pursuant to the divorce decree, if [Lisa] wished to exercise visitation rights beyond the vacation and holiday schedule set forth in the decree, such visitation must be mutually agreed to by Michael Schmidt; and (2) if Lisa showed up at school unannounced, Michael would need to be contacted and agree to the visitation before plaintiff could see the children.” Lisa was informed of the schools’ policy to require Michael’s consent to any visitation sought by plaintiff during school hours. She and Michael were also encouraged to “determine what are mutually agreeable visitation periods” and to “advise the school to the extent the visitation is to occur during the school day.” Lisa subsequently filed suit against DMPS. Both parties sought summary judgment.

The district court began by analyzing Lisa’s federal substantive due process claim that DMPS “deprived her of her fundamental right to direct the education of her children and/or her fundamental right to direct the care, custody and control of her children.”  To succeed on that claim Lisa must show that  she was deprived of a constitutionally protected liberty interest; and that DMPS’s conduct shocks the conscience. While it agreed that  a parent’s constitutionally protected liberty interest in the care, custody and management of her children includes a degree of parental control over her children’s education, under “certain circumstances the parental right to control the upbringing of a child must give way to a school’s ability to control curriculum and the school environment.”  Moreover, the district court found that there was no authority recognizing the right of a non-custodial parent, or even a custodial parent “to visit her children during school hours, or to receive requested information concerning her children’s school activities/attendance upon her demand,” nor had identified “any authority recognizing that these rights are protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States even for a parent with full custodial rights.”

Even if Lisa had established a constitutionally-protected right to satisfy the first element of the substantive due process claim, the court found her claim would still fail under the second element. It rejected her argument that the general counsel’s erroneous interpretation of the divorce decree led to conscience shocking deprivation of her parental rights because of the manner in which DMPS enforced its policy. It stated, “Whatever merit plaintiff’s argument may have, an erroneous legal conclusion regarding the effect of the divorce decree would not, in and of itself, constitute conscience-shocking conduct.” The court found, based on the accepted definition of the word “visitation” from a number of legal authorities,  that the general counsel’s interpretation of the the divorce decree was not “unreasonable, or, in any event, so unreasonable as to shock the conscience.”

The court addressed the issue of denial of access to education records separately, finding that “the record in this case does not support any claim that defendants unconditionally denied plaintiff access to her children’s records. ” It, therefore, concluded: “The failure to provide requested information on two occasions is not “so egregious, so outrageous, that it may fairly be said to shock the contemporary conscience.”

Lastly, the district court disposed of the federal procedural due process, state substantive and procedural due process, and federal and state equal protection claims. It found there was no due process claim because Lisa had failed to show she was deprived of a protected liberty interest. It dismissed the state procedural and substantive due process claims on the same grounds as the federal claims. The court found the equal protection claim fell because she could not “demonstrate that she was treated differently than a married parent who similarly lacks physical custody rights and enjoys only limited visitation rights with his/her children.”

Schmidt v. Des Moines Pub. Sch., No. 08-477 (S.D. Iowa Sept. 23, 2010)

[Editor's Note: Recently, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (LA, MS, TX) ruled  that a school district’s policy requiring all visitors to its schools to undergo an electronic sex offender background check before obtaining access to the school does not violate parents’ Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right to direct their children’s education. A summary of the opinion is available below.]

NSBA Legal Clips archive on Meadows v. Lake Travis Indep. Sch. Dist.

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