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Schools custody policy proposed

MANATEE — When it comes to disputing parents, particularly those who are separated or divorced, schools often are caught in the family’s personal decisions concerning the child.

Is the student allowed to participate in extracurricular activities?

Should they be placed in a special education class?

Who is permitted to pick them up from school?

In the past, the Manatee County School District looked to the primary custodian or residential parent for answers. But Florida’s divorce laws have drastically changed, doing away with the concept of primary custodial or residential parent. Instead the law now factors the concept of 50-50 time share custody between parents. The court will not deviate from that unless a parent shows good reasons to do so.

As a result, the school district can no longer look to a custodial parent to make final decisions.

So how can schools resolve disputes between parents and determine parents’ rights?

Proposed new rules, says school board attorney John Bowen, are based upon these principles:

n The district stays out of the dispute between parents.

n The district does not enforce court orders.

n The enrolling parent must have custody at least 50 percent of the time and is the decision maker on educational issues.

n Both parents have access to student records.

“Schools cannot wait for parents who are disagreeing with each other to either work out an agreement or go through a process that resolves the dispute for them,” Bowen said.

It could take months for them to make up their minds or, subsequently, get a court decision.

If there is a dispute, the proposed policy notes the district will not get involved in resolving their differences.

“We just don’t want a battle between divorced parents to involve us,” Bowen said. “We are not a party to that battle and we are not going to be a party to that battle.

“What this rule does is say, ‘OK, here is how we are going to make decisions,’ or who is going to make the decisions, such as who is on the emergency pick up list.”

Board member Jane Pfeilsticker said Manatee is at the forefront of creating the policy.

“Other districts are in the process of doing the same thing,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely necessary that before the coming school year, all divorced parents or divorcing parents look very careful at the policy and work together with their attorneys to make sure their child’s wellbeing is maintained. One parent must be the enrolling parent, and they need to decide between the two of them who will be that person.”

The board has set a public hearing on July 27 to discuss the proposed rules.

Of the district’s proposed policy notes that anyone who enrolls a child must have at least 50 percent custody of their child, Bowen said, “It’s important they be honest, or they face a misdemeanor charge.”

Under the law, a misdemeanor conviction carries a potential year jail sentence.