When I lived in Texas (up to 2014), my school held student report cards for nonpayment of lost/damaged library books and unpaid cafeteria charges. I had to turn in a list of students who had not paid for lost or damaged library books, and the report cards were not mailed with the rest of the student report cards in the first week of summer. Instead, if parents wanted the report card, they had to come to the school to pick it up in the office, where they were informed of the fine. They could choose to return the book (undamaged) or pay the replacement cost. We did get many fines paid and books returned this way, but there were always some report cards left over when we returned to school in August. Parents could, after all, see all their students’ grades in the online gradebook anyway.
I have heard differing opinions on whether or not it is legal for schools to withhold report cards for nonpayment of fines, so I decided to do a little fancy Googling and find out for myself if this practice is, in fact, legal.
It turns out, it depends on where you live. I did not look up all 50 states individually, and for some states, I could not locate legal information about consequences for nonpayment of fines and fees. Most of the states I did find information on do in fact limit a school’s ability to hold records due to nonpayment of lost/damaged library books.
We’ll start with Texas since I know my school at least held the report cards. According to the Section 31.104(d) of the Texas Education Code, schools may only withhold student records due to nonpayment of a lost textbook. And even if a textbook isn’t paid for, the district may not withhold the report card forever. Under Section 28.022 of the Education Code, a school district must give the parent written notice of the student’s performance in each class of subject at least once every 12 weeks. The district must comply with this rule regardless of nonpayment of fines. (TEA General Inquiry–Student FAQ)
I would assume a library book is not a textbook. I also notice that the Texas Education Code only specifies a lost textbook and not a damaged one. So as long as the textbook is returned to the school, it is all good, even if the textbook were coated in batter and deep-fried (cause that’s how we roll in Texas!). So at my school at least, many parents either did not know their rights, or they intended to pay the fine or return the book anyway.
In California, EC Section 48904 (b) states that if any public or private school’s property is “willfully cut, defaced, or otherwise injured,” the school may hold report cards, transcripts, and even diplomas “after affording the pupil his or her due process rights.” This includes school property loaned to students, which by that definition would include library books. (California Department of Education: Lost or Damaged Instructional Material Liability)
The key word for Californians is WILLFULLY. To me, this means that someone intentionally cut, defaced, or otherwise injured school property. When push comes to shove, the burden here would have to be on the school to prove willful intent. I would think in most cases, proving intent to damage a library book would be pretty much impossible. Because EC Section 48904 mentions “due process rights,” this policy is most likely used more for things like vandalism or other criminal behaviors than it would be used for lost library books.
New York public schools are not at allowed to hold report cards or transcripts at all. I’ve included the entire policy below because I really like the way the New York State Education Department words it. New York does make a point to say that “nonpublic” schools (i.e., private schools) have a contractual relationship with students and their families and are therefore under no obligation to provide transcripts if fines and fees are unpaid.
“The school may not withhold student grade reports. It has long been the position of the New York State Education Department that a public school may not withhold grades, a transcript, or books from a student for any reason. A student is entitled to those items as part of a free public education guaranteed pursuant to Education Law 3202. If a student or parent owes the district money, the district may resort to civil proceedings to recover the money, but may not withhold records or books to compel payment.
Since there is a contractual relationship between a family and a nonpublic school, nonpublic schools may refuse to provide cards or transcripts to a student whose family has not fulfilled their obligation to pay all tuition and fees.”
While I do like the way this policy is stated, I imagine it results in many unreturned library books in New York Public Schools, and I hope the school districts keep this in mind when they allocate funds for school libraries.
Minnesota: “School districts may not suspend or exclude students or withhold students’ grades or diplomas for failing to pay school fees.” (Minnesota’s Public School Fee Law)
Virginia: “Local school boards shall not withhold any student’s scholastic report card or diploma because of nonpayment of fees and charges, in accordance with § 22.1-6 of the Code of Virginia.” (Virginia Law Education Code)
Tennessee (Shelby County Public Schools): “Report cards, diplomas, and transcripts of students who take SCS property or students who have incurred a debt to a school, shall be withheld until the student makes restitution in full.” (Policy 6047: School Fees and Debts)
Kentucky: “Several districts use sanctions to leverage students to pay fees. In some districts, student parking passes are revoked for failure to pay parking fees. Other actions reported by districts include withholding participation in school dances and graduation ceremonies. Five districts reported that they withhold student academic records until fees are paid. This is a violation of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. The proper way to collect unpaid debt is through small claims court.” (Legislative Research Commission, Office of Education Accountability: Fees, Dues, and Supplies)
Montana: “A school district may withhold the grades, diploma, or transcripts of a pupil who is responsible for the cost of school materials or the loss or damage of school property until the pupil or the pupil’s parent or guardian satisfies the obligation.”
Interestingly, the law in Montana also states that if a student transfers to another school while owing a fine to their previous school, the first school should “notify the pupil’s parent or guardian in writing that the school district to which the pupil has transferred will be requested to withhold the pupil’s grades, diploma, or transcripts until any obligation has been satisfied.” This policy basically requires a student’s new school to hold records until the student pays the fine or fee to their previous school. This could get pretty messy and confusing if the child later transfers to a third school, as does happen sometimes. (Montana Compilation of School Discipline Laws and Regulations, Laws 20-5-201 Duties and Sanctions)
What does your school do to encourage students to pay for lost or damaged library materials? What are your school’s policies?