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Steve Hansen My principal jumped to conclusions instead of checking the facts

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Steve Hansen

Posted: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 12:00 am

" … . And another thing, Principal Wordsworth (named changed to protect the innocent.) My daughter can't go to the University of California because her counselor, this Hansen guy, didn't tell her about the Algebra II requirement!"

Of course, she didn't have the grades for UC, had failed Geometry and Algebra I, but that was irrelevant to this parent.

Facts, documentation and details always tip the scale when resolving issues like this.

In my experience, some school administrators tend to jump to conclusions without gathering all the facts. One thing you learn in law school is that the facts are the be-all and end-all. Always gather as much as you can of these pesky little critters before drawing any conclusions.

Anther thing I learned is documentation, documentation and documentation. As a school counselor, I kept copious daily notes. This included dates, times and summaries of conversations held — especially on parents who could be potentially problematic.

Everyone wants to be a good parent, but it's one of the hardest jobs out there. When things don't go as planned, some take responsibility, some claim circumstances beyond anyone's control, while others look for the first person to blame.

For this particular situation, I wrote a "brief." Using notes from the last three years, I presented my side of the story to the principal. He read it to the parent in question who just stared dumbfounded. The father left without a whimper. Later, Wordsworth said to me, "You didn't have to be so detailed."

Oh yes, I did! Another lesson from law school: details, details and details. The more details one examines, the more opportunity there is for a change in perception of the facts.

Of course, details can work both ways. The more detail contained in a document, the less opportunity there is to question the meanings of phrases and sentences. (Have you tried buying a house or a car lately?) It also makes it more difficult to evoke the "parole evidence rule" (using facts and definitions outside of the written contract).

People who don't have legal backgrounds tend to jump to conclusions about what the law actually is. They learn their legalese by watching news stories (told by reporters who have no legal knowledge either) or by viewing TV lawyer shows designed to entertain, not teach laypeople about the justice system.

A church spokesperson once asked Wordsworth if he could display an ad in a public school gymnasium. The principal's immediate assumption was "no," since he had heard about "separation of church and state." But the principal was smarter than the average bear. He decided to consult the expertise of an attorney assistant principal and myself (at the time, a student of the law) on his staff.

We gave our united opinions, but not expressed as "legal advice." Wordsworth could NOT deny the church access among other business displays based on the "limited open forum" concept upheld by the Supreme Court (Lamb's Chapel vs. Center Moriches Union Free School District) et al. Once a public school opens up to some, it can't deny that forum to others. It cannot discriminate against race, gender or religion.

When young people tell me they want to go to law school, I often say, "Why?" Why would you want to put yourself through that pain and suffering, spend as much as $150K on a three-year program, take a flunky job working 14 hours per day and, on average, make less money than a community college instructor or a secondary school administrator?

The answer may lie in simply gaining a better grasp of logical thinking as well as obtaining insight into this elite group that runs our daily lives. As many as one third of law school graduates never practice. But that does not mean their training is absent from everyday human activity. The search for the facts, documentation and details may still dominate their lives.

One thing is certain: The world does not look the same coming out of law school as it did going in.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer and law school graduate.

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