In loco parentis is a legal doctrine describing a relationship similar to a parent’s relationship to a child. In general, in loco parentis refers to an individual’s or an organization’s assumption of the parental status for a child–that is, it is the legal doctrine by which an individual or organization assumes the rights, duties, and obligations of a parent.
The most common usage of the in loco parentis doctrine relates to teachers and students. This principle has its foundation in English common law, where it governed the rights and obligations of tutors and private schools. The English common-law concept, in turn, shaped the rights and responsibilities of public school teachers. Under this understanding, the legal authority these individuals exercised over students was as broad as that of the students’ parents.
The concept of in loco parentis has been a fundamental part of the educational system in the United States. Teachers and schools have assumed the legal authority accruing to parents, and exercised that legal authority over the children in their care. The courts have also defined some aspects of in loco parentis. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that conduct, either in class or out of class, that materially disrupts class and causes substantial disorder is not protected by the constitutional guarantee of free speech. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the Court ruled that the First Amendment rights of students in public schools are not equivalent to the First Amendment rights enjoyed by adults in other settings; that is, students’ First Amendment rights have to be viewed in the circumstances of a school setting. In New Jersey v. T. L. O. (1985), the Court upheld the search of lockers by school representatives, ruling that students are not afforded the same right to privacy in a school setting as they would be if they were at their homes. Parents have the right to search their children’s room and school administrators, acting in loco parentis, have the same authority. In Ingraham v. Wright (1977), the Supreme Court ruled that disciplinary paddling of public school students was not cruel and unusual punishment as prohibited by the Eight Amendment. The First and Fourth Amendments also been interpreted as offering less protection for public school students. The Court ruled that public high schools could utilize random drug testing to safeguard their students in Vernonia School District v. Acton in 1995.
In many cases, the courts have deferred to the school’s authority to make rules and to discipline students. In doing so, they have made several points very clear in applying the in loco parentis doctrine to schools. The first point is that under this principle, speech rules and other school rules are treated identically. The second point is the in loco parentis doctrine imposes almost no limits on the types of rules that a school can set while students are in school. The third point is schools and teachers have tremendous discretion in imposing punishment for violations of the rules, as established in Morse v. Frederick in 2007.
- Blackstone, W. (1765). Commentaries on the laws of England. Oxford, UK:
- Clarendon Press. Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988). Ingraham v. Wright 430 U.S. 651 (1977).
- Morse v. Frederick 551 U.S. (2007). New Jersey v. T. L. O. 469 U.S. 325 (1985).
- Nolan, J. R., & Connelly, M. J. (1983). Black’s law dictionary,5th ed.St. Paul, MN: West.
- Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District 393 U.S. 503 (1969).
- Vernonia School District v. Acton 515 U.S. 646 (1995).