When it comes to education, workplace whistleblowing might seem like a more significant risk than it is.
Is workplace whistleblowing really protected when it comes to education? The way some administrators run their schools and districts would make you wonder. Just asking for small changes or money for simple repairs can put you on the naughty list. It can be hard to believe that making an official complaint would lead to anything but problems, but there are laws to protect you from facing retaliation. In some cases, it’s possible to make a complaint while staying completely anonymous.
Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?
Being part of a team is central to educational institutions and a team spirit is key to their success. Every teacher, every aide, every tutor or janitor in place plays a role in motivating students to perform their best. It’s normal for administrators to put in 110 percent and to expect the same from their employees.
Working as part of something larger than yourself is a rewarding experience, but what happens when problems arise? There will always be some people who see any criticism as an attack. Others will always feel strongly you should keep complaints to yourself or handle them privately. Turning in a complaint might come across as disloyalty, and suddenly, you’re not dealing with a problem anymore. You’re in a situation where it is you vs. them. If you “snitch,” you become the enemy.
This destructive cycle affects schools throughout the U.S. and has contributed to significant abuses regarding the handling of funds and of students. It’s imperative for people to feel safe coming forward about problems to ensure our kids stay safe. Unfortunately, the community culture among most school staff works against filing complaints.
Avoiding an “Us vs. Them” Situation
In theory, there are laws in place to protect whistleblowers; however, regarding education, strict guidelines are dictating how and to whom they should make the complaints. A lawyer can walk you through the specifics of your situation, though the Department of Education covers the basic framework here.
Government employees have different protections and responsibilities than those who are working for contractors, or perhaps, just applying for jobs.
The law can prevent you from being:
- Or threatened
Among other things, for filing a complaint, the law can’t force your coworkers to continue to trust you or be friendly. Hiring a lawyer before filing a complaint can sometimes help you preserve your anonymity.
The Difference Workplace Whistleblowing Makes on Student Quality of Life
For obvious reasons, it’s difficult for whistleblowers in education to come forward, but the benefits often outweigh the risks. When institutions misuse and abuse their positions, they have a direct and negative impact on the lives of students.
For instance, whistleblowers in education have been responsible for stopping:
- Physical and sexual abuse
- Failure to provide adequate special education
- Mismanagement of school funds
Unfortunately, too many people assume they have protections they don’t have when sharing information. According to the Department of Education, there are only certain people to whom you can complain to for whistleblower laws to count.
Former Illinois principal Julie McArdle found this out the hard way when raising concerns about questionable spending of her predecessor-turned-superior. Not only was McArdle fired, but the court found in the school boards favor, saying First Amendment protection doesn’t apply when you’re speaking on behalf of a government employer. She hadn’t made the complaint to the appropriate person, so it wasn’t covered under whistleblower laws or as freedom of speech.
Things are turning out differently for a part-time nurse for the Park City School District in Utah. After facing harassment, hostility, and termination following her official complaints regarding a lack of services for diabetic students, Nicole Kennedy sued the district and select administrators for violating whistleblower laws. Summit County 3rd District Court Judge Richard Mrazik refused to dismiss the lawsuit last month. The case is currently in mediation.
Education Fraud and Qui Tam Lawsuits
The False Claims Act allows individuals to bring qui tam lawsuits against those who engage in government-related fraud on behalf of the nation. These cases allow whistleblowers to share in judgments. Billions of dollars go to whistleblowers every year. However, it’s essential to file claims in the right way to be eligible to take part.
Fraud cases from the last year include:
- Individuals filling out federal loan applications for students without their knowledge
- Event planners scamming schools out of money for services they never intended to provide
- Tutoring companies billing the government for services they did not offer
- Charter schools using deceptive strategies to avoid paying taxes
What’s unique in these situations is that companies faced fines but individuals also went to jail—in some cases, for ten years or more.
We know how difficult it is to stand up and do the right thing. Having the proper legal representation makes whistleblowing simpler and safer.
Contact the skilled workplace whistleblowing attorneys at Bothwell Law Group by calling 770.643.1606 today or connecting with us online.