Examine special educators’ online crowdfunding requests to avoid liability

On March 27, every teacher with a project listed on the crowdfunding website DonorsChoose.org woke up to a big surprise — all their wish lists were funded by a single $29 million donation by the company Ripple.

Crowdfunding for education projects has gained popularity partly due to large one-time donations and celebrity gifts. In 2016, comedian Stephen Colbert funded every South Carolina teacher’s project on the website in one day and challenged other celebrities to give with the hashtag #BestSchoolDay.

Through crowdfunding, a teacher can post a request to a public website asking for donations for supplies or technology for her classroom. Typically, sites like DonorsChoose.org do not send money but order the items that were requested and send them directly to the school.

Liability created by teachers’ posts

While crowdfunding can be a good fundraiser for needed supplies, it can also expose schools to liability if policies and procedures are not in place to control it, said school attorney Erin Gilsbach of counsel with Steckel and Stopp Law Offices in Pennsylvania.

“The problem isn’t with the crowdfunding sites themselves; it’s usually the teachers who post to the site that create the liability,” Gilsbach said.

For example, a special education teacher who posts a picture and story about her students can violate confidentiality rules governed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the IDEA. Making statements about the lack of supports or lack of assistive technology to meet students’ needs can also implicate the district, Gilsbach said.

“I’ve seen posts that say, ‘My students are getting into trouble because they can’t communicate without these iPads,’ and, ‘The school does not have the budget to provide these devices that my students absolutely need,'” Gilsbach said. “Donors are more likely to donate when there’s a sympathetic story. It causes some teachers to make these hyperbolic statements that can get the district into trouble.”

Create policy, procedures to review all online fundraising

“The biggest issue is ultimately there’s all this fundraising happening in the name of schools and they’re often not aware of it,” Gilsbach said. Fortunately, this can be fixed by creating a policy and procedure for approving teachers’ projects.

Here’s how:

  • Create a policy whereby teachers must have their crowdfunding projects approved by an administrator.Have teachers send the text and images that they plan to post. “The procedures and policies are there to make sure that your practices are legally defensible, but it also allows districts to properly discipline a teacher who is doing this the wrong way,” Gilsbach said. Watch for language that implies the school is not meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Also, check that the requested items align with other school policies. For instance, a request for sugary snacks as incentives for good behavior might conflict with a district wellness policy on foods in the classroom, Gilsbach said.
  • Consider vetting 1 or 2 crowdfunding sites that teachers can use.Some sites offer additional checks and balances such as verifying that a recipient is a current teacher at the school or notifying administrators when a teacher has connected the school’s name to a request.
  • Clarify who owns the donated items.“Reaffirm in your policies that devices donated in the school’s name belong to the school,” Gilsbach said.
  • Be prepared to accept the items.Once the post is live, it could be funded immediately, which means schools need to be ready to support the donations, Gilsbach said. For technology devices, that could include insurance, providing cases for the devices, and creating policies for student’s use.

“Schools can really benefit from crowdfunding,” Gilsbach said. “People want to give, and a lot of these requests are for programs that are getting cut left and right. But schools have to reign it in and know who is raising money for what and have protections in place.”

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504 and education technology as it relates to special education for LRP Publications.

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