Local Religious life

Educator/attorney offers refresher in Catholic education and the law

Sister Mary Angela Shaughnessy, SCN, shared insights about legal issues facing Catholic schools during a recent presentation hosted by the University of Saint Mary, Leavenworth.

by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven

LEAVENWORTH — Drawing on her extensive experience as an educator and attorney, Sister Mary Angela Shaughnessy, SCN, JD, Ph.D., shared insights about legal issues facing Catholic schools during a recent presentation hosted by the University of Saint Mary here.  

She emphasized recurring themes, including the importance of schools staying true to the teachings of the Catholic Church; educators’ role in ensuring the safety of students to the extent possible; and the value of up-to-date and well-written handbooks. Sister Mary Angela also advocated for administrators to understand their schools’ relationship with their diocese, and that they ensure participation of faculty, staff and volunteers in safe environment training.

Sister Mary Angela explained that because Catholic schools are private institutions, faculty, staff, parents, students and volunteers surrender their constitutional rights and the protections of the U.S. Constitution when they enter these facilities. Contract law is the main source of law for Catholic educational institutions.

In an increasingly litigious society, she described handbooks as contractual legal agreements that delineate policies, responsibilities, expectations and other content targeted to different audiences. She recommended that individuals affected by these contractual agreements sign statements that they have read and agreed to be governed by the respective handbook. 

Allison M. Carney, associate superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, appreciated this refresher.

“I was reminded of the importance of our handbooks,” she said, “and being sure that all stakeholders, students, parents, teachers and staff know what is in the handbooks and their responsibility to comply with them.” 

Using the framework of a true and false exam, Sister Mary Angela offered practical advice and perspectives on a variety of legal issues. Among them, she discussed medication administration; field trips; student-to-student harassment; accommodation of students with learning or other disabilities; injury liabilities; use of school logos; search and seizure of items, including cellphones; and confidentiality.

She cautioned that outside of the sacrament of penance, there is no absolute confidentiality.

“Where health, life and safety are concerned, courts will never allow a teacher or staff member to keep information confidential,” she explained. Comments made by students with the request they be held in confidence can be subject to subpoena. 

As they strive to provide safe environments, Sister Mary Angela encouraged administrators to keep specific, behaviorally oriented and verifiable documentation of situations and behaviors that are or could be considered problematic. She stressed that demeaning behavior, harassment, hazing and discrimination have no place in Catholic schools. Administrators can be held liable for student and teacher harassment of others.

“Sister Mary Angela was very informative and relatable,” said James Sandstrom, principal of Hayden High School, Topeka. “She did an excellent job of explaining Catholic school law covering a variety of topics and noting handbook ‘must haves.’”

The Sister of Charity of Nazareth has served in education in nearly every capacity — as teacher, principal, professor, graduate school dean and university vice president. She holds a doctorate in educational administration, has a law degree and has practiced law for 30 years. She is the founding director of the Education Law Symposium, is the author of more than 30 texts and is the recipient of numerous awards.

The speaker’s emphasis on upholding teachings of the Catholic faith was the part that resonated most with Theresa Lein, principal of St. Matthew School in Topeka.

“Within our Catholic school, we have the right [and the responsibility],” she said, “to live and teach our faith. Parents and faculty accept this when they enter our buildings and join us in the responsibility of sharing our faith with our students.”

Sister Mary Angela concluded her presentation by advising the administrators of the following: “Remember to ask for God’s help and guidance each day. Pray. Prayer is not optional. Be faithful to prayer and practice due diligence.”

Sister Mary Angela is teaching a summer course on educational policy, ethics and law in the higher education leadership track of the University of Saint Mary’s doctor of education program (EdD) through July 1.

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

Leave a Comment