Mitigate the Risk of
a Legal Battle
By Murray Cooper | Associate Superintendent for Administration, Office of Education—Florida Conference
I f you type into your search engine, “reducing legal risks in schools,” Google will quickly (0.11 secs) tell you that there are 560,000 documents. As a school principal, it is a significant part of your responsibility to reduce risk and potential liabilities at your school. Given the world we live in today, this task is as challenging as ever. Can all risks and liability be eliminated? No. Can you put strategic steps and processes in place to reduce the risk? Absolutely YES!
Given all the risk and fraud challenges, we can focus on addressing one central area of risk that we all face when it is time to let a teacher go. While termination of teaching staff is ultimately a function of the conference education office, the potential risk of wrongful termination actions in these situations can be lessened when the superintendent and principal collaborate in this critical area. There are three steps to draw your attention to:
Your conference should have a step-by-step plan for dealing with corrective action for teaching staff, and that process needs to be followed carefully to bring about change. If you are not familiar with the process in your conference, you need to talk with your superintendent and familiarize yourself with the steps you are expected to follow. Having a plan that has been carefully created in a non-stressed time is the first step in reducing the risk of wrongful termination. You want to avoid the creation of a plan on the fly. Implementing this plan also requires you to keep your superintendent informed so they can guide you moving forward.
Regardless of the corrective action plan, teachers can’t be expected to change behavior if they are not made aware that they are doing something that does not meet expectations. The principal must begin the conversations with the teacher early upon first observing or becoming aware of problem behaviors. At first, this should be a “making aware” type of conversation and a reminder of the expectation. Teachers want to be the best they can be and generally will work hard to make the necessary adjustments once they are aware of a problem. However, it is not fair to expect teachers to make changes if they are not made aware that a problem exists. Trouble begins when concerns are not identified nor communicated to the teacher early, well before the point in time when the principal decides that the teacher must go. Clear communication of expectations to teachers is the only way they can start the process to make the necessary changes. If, after these conversations, significant positive change has not occurred, then that teacher is either unwilling or unable to make the changes required to meet expectations. Early communication with the teacher and following a process is key to reducing risk.
Communication with the teacher is only effective at avoiding trouble if that communication is documented and on file with both the teacher and principal having signed documentation of the conversations and action plans. For example, when a principal identifies areas of concern with a teacher, the principal should create a document listing those areas. Then print and have it ready for a meeting with the teacher. During the meeting, read through the document with the teacher, start the collaborative process of an action plan if necessary, and have the teacher sign and date that document and keep a copy for themselves. Where wrongful termination action gains traction is when a teacher claims that they were never made aware of a problem and were never allowed to take corrective action. These claims become much easier to avoid if the principal can provide copies of communication signed by the teacher, showing the issues that were addressed in meetings. This documentation goes a long way to reducing the risk of a legal battle for wrongful termination.
Fraud Control Plan
Business Manager—Forest Lake Education Center
Download the following sample Fraud Control Plan
THE BEST PRECAUTION a principal can take to minimize risks is to have a fraud control plan outlining the prevention, detection, and response to fraud. To help you develop a plan for your campus, here is an outline that has been successful at Forest Lake Education Center:
1.1 Commitment to fraud control
Forest Lake Education Center (FLEC) recognizes that it has a responsibility to develop, encourage and implement sound financial, legal, and ethical decision-making and organizational practices. This Fraud Control Plan represents FLEC's commitment to effective fraud risk management and prevention.
1.2 Application of Fraud Control Plan
This Fraud Control Plan represents FLEC's commitment to the management and prevention of fraud and consist of three major components:
* Prevention - initiatives to deter and minimize the opportunities for fraud.
* Detection - initiatives to detect fraud as soon as possible after it occurs; and
* Response - initiatives to deal with detected or suspected fraud.
1.3 Statement of attitude to fraud
Fraud has the potential to damage the reputation of FLEC and have a detrimental effect on the resources available to promote FLEC's objectives. Accordingly, FLEC has adopted a zero tolerance to fraud and is committed to minimizing the incidence of fraud through the development, implementation and regular review of fraud prevention, detection, and response strategies. Each strategy contributes to an environment where risk is managed, through sound internal controls, and ethical practices.
2.1 Integrity framework
A fundamental strategy in controlling the risk of fraud is the development and maintenance of sound ethical culture, underpinned by effective and continuous communication and example-setting by management.
2.2 Fraud control planning
To maintain better practice in its fraud risk management practices, FLEC is committed to communicate regularly to all staff promoting compliance and adherence to the Fraud Control Policy.
2.3 Internal control
Internal controls are often the first line of defense against fraud. FLEC will ensure the maintenance of a strong internal control system and the promotion and monitoring of robust internal control culture.
2.4 Pre-employment screening
Pre-employment screening is an effective means of preventing fraud, such as falsifying qualifications or employment history. It can also identify previous criminal convictions for offences of dishonesty.
FLEC recognizes that, despite a comprehensive fraud control program, it is possible that fraud may occur. Accordingly, FLEC has adopted a program aimed at detecting fraud as soon as possible after it has occurred.
3.1 Identification of early warning signs
Identification and acting on early warning signs of fraudulent activity is an important part of early fraud detection. All staff should be aware of their responsibility to remain vigilant to identify and report any suspected fraudulent activity.
3.2 Reporting instances of fraud by employees
Staff who become aware of suspected fraudulent conduct are required to report the matter in accordance with this procedure. Staff are also required to maintain strict confidentiality on any suspected fraud matter of which they have knowledge. In the event of the allegation involving any of the following positions the matter should be referred directly to the principal.
4.1 Reviewing systems and procedures (post fraud)
In each instance where fraud is detected, FLEC will reassess the adequacy of the internal control environment (particularly those controls directly impacting on the fraud incident and potentially allowing it to occur), prepare an action plan and implement improvements where required. Where improvements are required, they will be implemented as soon as practicable.
4.2 Communication protocol
Should fraud against FLEC be detected the following protocols must be applied. The principal will make all decisions on the appropriate communications protocol to be adopted.
A fundamental strategy in controlling the risk of fraud
is the development and maintenance of sound ethical culture,
underpinned by effective and continuous communication and
example-setting by management.