Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Law and the Catholic School

Miriam Schulman

The most important legal responsibility for Catholic schools is ensuring the safety of students, according to Mary Angela Shaughnessy, SCN. The second is “to be true to the teaching of the Catholic Church.” If a school puts “Catholic” in its title, Shaughnessy argued, it ought to be willing to teach the Church’s precepts.

Shaughnessy, an expert on law and Catholic schools, was the keynote speaker at the Catholic School Principal’s Institute, a program of the Ethics Center and the SCU Department of Education. The second annual institute brought principals from many Northern California Dioceses together to discuss some of the challenges administrators face.
Shaughnessy reviewed a number of issues about which educators and students often have misconceptions. For example, she explained that students in Catholic schools do not have the same legal rights as children in public schools. Constitutional rights can be asserted in a public school, which is seen as the agent of government, as the Constitution protects citizens from governmental deprivation of their freedoms. But Catholic schools are private, and can, for example, restrict speech that goes against the teachings of the Church.
On the other hand, Shaughnessy counseled fairness in the treatment of students. Particularly in matters of discipline, she argued for a process that allows students the opportunity to tell their own side of the story. She recalled an incident that occurred when she was a principal and, due to false information from one of the school’s teachers, she suspended a graduating senior. When she discovered the truth, she wrote the student a letter of apology, which she described not as a matter of law but as a requirement of ethics.
Shaughnessy cautioned against new policies some schools have instituted that forbid touching a student or being in a room alone with a student. While these represent well-intentioned efforts to avoid abuse, Shaughnessy said they are unenforceable; under such strictures, a priest could not hear a child’s confession, nor could a teacher comfort a child who had lost a parent. “Use common sense,” she advised. “The test is, if someone took a picture of this, how would it look?”
She also urged principals to be aware that courts are holding schools liable not only for problematic behavior that teachers know about (actual knowledge) but also for behavior that they should have known about (constructive knowledge). So, for example, if a child is being repeatedly harassed on the playground, the courts may rule that playground monitors should have been aware of the problem and are therefore liable for not stopping it.
Shaughnessy has taught at educational levels from elementary to graduate school. A J.D./Ph.D, she is a Sister of Charity of Nazareth. Her talk was the kick-off for the four-day institute, which will also feature Dough Grove, director of the graduate program in education at Vanguard University and an expert on assessment, as well as SCU faculty and staff.
Jun 24, 2010