Parents bring in lawyers for school stoushes

By Steve Deane, Sophie Ryan, Sam Hurley of Hawke's Bay Today.

Lucan Battison, 16, and his mother Tania Doidge, before the teenager set off for his school ball yesterday. Photo / Duncan Brown
Lucan Battison, 16, and his mother Tania Doidge, before the teenager set off for his school ball yesterday. Photo / Duncan Brown

A leading psychologist says parents are increasingly bringing lawyers in to work out issues at schools.

Nigel Latta, a clinical psychologist and parenting expert, told TVNZ's Q and A that parents are bringing lawyers in to deal with problems at their child's school, and it's wrong.

Sixteen-year-old Lucan Battison successfully challenged a suspension from Hastings' St John's College after refusing to cut his "naturally curly hair".

The school's rules set out are that students must have "hair that is short, tidy and of natural colour. Hair must be off the collar and out of the eyes".

Justice David Collins said on Friday that the rule was capable of being interpreted differently by students, parents, teachers, the principal and the school's board and was not legally enforceable.

He also ruled that Lucan's refusal to follow principal Paul Melloy's directive to get his hair cut did not amount to setting a harmful or dangerous example to other students.

Dr Latta said he has been told of parents who have brought lawyers to school to fight over rules at schools around the country.

"I've been in lots of different schools, I go to principal conferences, I know that increasingly they're having to deal with parents that turn up with lawyers and parents who when they don't get the answer they want they will then resort to bringing lawyers in -- and that's wrong."

He said the decision from Justice Collins had wide implications.

"There are implications for the rest of us, for our schools, for our kids now."

"It's not a small point that now schools will have to spend money on lawyers to vet rules.

"What it means for all of us is schools will be spending money on lawyers when they could be spending that money on textbooks or technology or professional development - that is where that money should go."

Dr Latta said while he supported young people pushing limits, he didn't support the argument ending up in court.

"I understand that young people want to push limits... Where I have an issue with it is if at the end of that process you think 'right now we'll go to court and we'll fight in court."'

Legal expert Dr Bill Hodge said on Friday the costs associated with having school rules scrutinised and drafted by lawyers would run into thousands of dollars.

"You can't just go down to your conveyancer. You'd have to have a pretty good lawyer who is experienced in this sort of thing and it is not going to be easy to get these things right. And it is not just about hair -- presumably it is also about bringing a swiss army knife or aspirin or some sort of substance that isn't necessarily an illegal high. All of these things will have to be prescribed to that standard. That just makes governance as well as management so much more difficult."

Dr Hodge said the ruling meant that amateur administrators serving on boards of trustees were effectively being held to the standard of professional law makers.

A statement from the Battison family released on Friday said they were pleased with the judgment, but were disappointed the issue reached the High Court after wanting to mediate.

"We do believe rules have a place. But they need to be reasonable and certain. Lucan has had the same style for three years at St John's."

- APNZ

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