Chevy Chase engineer Bernard Bloom, a divorced father of two, thought he had made a simple request last September when he asked that his name be added to the computerized mailing list at his children's two schools so that he could stay informed about their grades, PTA meetings and school performances.
But one month later, Montgomery school officials notified Bloom, in a three-paragraph letter, that his request was too complicated to grant. The name addition might cause confusion on programmed school bus routes, a school official explained later.
"It's incredibly insensitive," says Bloom, who sees his children every other weekend. "It seems to me that if a child has two parents and they both show an interest in the child that there should be a positive desire on the school's part to support the relationship . . . not discourage it. What happens to parents who are divorced is that they lose connection to their kids in bits and pieces."
Divorced parents like Bloom complain frequently that most schools still operate as if every family had two parents living under one roof, despite the fact that as many as half their students have parents who do not live together. Educators, sympathetic to the pain surrounding a broken marriage, nonetheless argue that requests by divorced parents are, at times, far more burdensome and time-consuming than any educational reform ever has been.
Educators in Montgomery voice a refrain echoed nationwide: How much must schools do to accommodate changing family structures at a cost to already-limited funds and classroom time? In a case believed to be the first of its kind, an Albany, N.Y., father with joint custody of his two children argued yesterday in federal court that he and his children are being deprived of their civil rights because a suburban school district there has repeatedly refused to send the father the school bulletins his former wife regularly receives. The judge took the case under advisement.
In a 1981 national study, "Single Parents and the Public Schools," only 4.5 percent of more than 1,200 noncustodial parents surveyed in 47 states said they regularly receive information about school activities from their childrens' schools; 6.5 percent said that they received report cards.
Among Washington-area schools, policy varies enormously and is generally left to the individual principal, who rarely allows information to be copied routinely. An exception is the District of Columbia, one of the few school districts in the country with a stated policy requiring schools to send duplicate information to noncustodial parents if it is requested.
"Schools still operate under the traditional notion that the two-parent family is the only right kind of family," says Phyllis Clay, author of the 1981 study. Clay said one school district she surveyed allowed parents to eat lunch with their children on certain days, but specifically forbade noncustodial parents to participate unless the former spouse gave permission.
The issue inflames emotions on both sides. Classroom teachers say they are already too involved in the marital spats of their students' parents. They say they arrange separate parent-teacher conferences, referee embarassing family tussles between parents who do not want to see each other and testify in bitter child custody disputes. In Montgomery, for example, according to the personnel director, about 100 teachers appear in court each year to testify about which parent seems more involved with his or her child.
"I don't object to any parent wanting to have this kind of information," says C. Theodore Carlson, a lawyer representing the South Colonie school district in the suburban Albany case. "But schools cannot afford to duplicate everything. What do you do with a school system like the city of New York where there are tens of thousands of kids whose parents are divorced?"
Divorced parents, however, argue that the little extra money and time required for duplicate copies is a small price to pay for staying involved in their children's lives -- something they find increasingly difficult to do without the help of the school.
"Bulletins about fathers nights, social events -- these are the little cogs by which the wheel of parent-child contact continues to turn," says Albany pediatrician Robert Fay who filed suit against the South Colonie school district. "These are just one of the means by which millions of fathers are kept out of their childrens' lives . . . . Even as a pediatrician I was completely ignorant of the plight into which the noncustodial parent, 90 percent of whom are men, is placed. It is total exclusion and utter desperation.
"I am doing this not only because of the outrage I have suffered, but for all those other poor Joes, the plumber, the 21-year-old, the guy who gives up when he cannot get information about his children."
Federal law entitles a noncustodial parent access to a child's grades and academic record, but the law does not directly address repeating telephone calls made to the custodial parent or copying school bulletins. And, until now, the courts have not been involved in instructing schools how they must respond when a divorce occurs, leaving the task to the parents to keep each other informed about their children's education -- a precarious setup at best when relations already are strained.
Experts say that about 1.8 million children will go through a divorce this year. Obviously, "it is better for the children if they have constant access to the noncustodial parent . . . ," says Doris Jonas Freed, chairwoman of the research committee of the American Bar Association's Family Law Section. "But how you can remain involved when you don't even know what's going on is more than I can see."
Local school officials say a victory for Fay could be an administrative nightmare. "It is a real concern," says Montgomery school administrator Ed Shirley. "I get calls all the time from principals about what they should do when a divorced parent requests information. Everyone is very confused."
Bea Cameron, assistant superintendent of student services in Fairfax says "it would be very difficult" to follow a ruling in Fay's favor. "For the large number of students that it would probably involve, it could mean duplicating our administrative and clerical requirements."
Fay's case started six years ago when he first separated from his wife and school officials refused to send him copies of all the notices that were given to his children to bring home. Fay was living 75 miles from the school district at the time, and said he would pay for any long distance calls as well as costs of copying notices, but South Colonie administrators said the task would be too time consuming.
At that point, Fay contacted U.S. Department of Education officials who told him that under federal law he was entitled to the grades if he paid for the postage. Fay is now getting the grades, but says he must renew his request every year.
Fay also wanted the school to notify him when his children were absent or when his former wife was called about a school problem, but the law did not address fliers or telephone calls. So Fay appealed the school district's decision to Gordon Ambach, New York State commissioner of education, who rejected the request as an "unreasonable burden." An appeal to the Albany County Supreme Court also failed, prompting Fay to pursue the case in federal court.
At issue in the Fay case is the matter of who is responsible for keeping divorced parents informed of their children's school lives. South Colonie school officials have said they will send specifically requested notices, but will not honor a blanket request for copies of all communications. School officials also note that Phyllis Fay, Fay's former wife, was instructed in their separation agreement to inform Robert Fay of his children's academic progress.
Robert Fay, however, argues he should not have to depend on his former wife for information to which he feels entitled. Frequently, he says, he has missed events or has been told only at the last minute because of this kind of system.
Sometimes, contacting the custodial parent does work. Richard Stephenson, former principal at Diamond Elementary in Gaithersburg, recalls that a divorced father asked last year that information sent home with his children be copied and mailed to him. "I said, 'look, that can be a real hassle making duplicates of everything,' " said Stephenson, now principal at Stedwick Elementary in Gaithersburg. "He was not the custodial parent and he still had contact with the mother. I simply persuaded him at that time to get the information from the mother . . . . It wasn't that big of a problem."
In some cases, parents even run into trouble getting copies of their children's grades, despite the federal law. Bernard Bloom had no trouble at Cabin John Junior High when he called last week to get his daughter's grades, but he said he initially was told by his son's counselor at Churchill High in Potomac that a copy of the boy's grades could not be sent to him. Later, after another phone call, Churchill Principal C.F. Bready said an exception would be made and the report cards mailed, according to Bloom.
At Lakewood Elementary in Rockville, principal Kathleen Holliday says she routinely calls the custodial parent as a courtesy to inform him or her that the other parent has requested a copy of the grades.
"Sometimes it gets a little embarassing," says Holliday, president of the county's association of principals. "I feel like I'm calling their mother to see if it's okay . . . . We need some kind of clear ruling on this . . . . At times, we begin to feel more like social workers than elementary school teachers."
Other teachers echo Holliday's frustration, saying that duplicate copies of records are only the tip of the iceberg. At Burning Tree Elementary in Bethesda, Principal Gabriel Massaro says he was recently called by a mother who did not want her former husband to attend a school field trip to which both parents had been invited. Massaro told the mother to work it out; the father attended, but the mother did not. At Sherwood Elementary in Olney, principal Tom Buck says teachers know when a child custody case is about to surface and a teacher is going to be called to testify. "Both parents suddenly turn up as volunteers in the classroom," he says. And at Belmont Elementary, also in Olney, Principal Barbara Contrera says that in addition to holding separate parent-teacher conferences, some conferences are expanded into a group of four parents. "You name the arrangement, we've seen it," she says.