Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Legal Guidelines for Dismissing Students Because of Poor Performance in the Field

Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Legal Guidelines for Dismissing Students Because of Poor Performance in the Field

Article excerpt

A STUDENT WHO IS DISMISSED from a social work education program due to poor performance in the field is more likely to initiate a lawsuit against the school today than in the past. This change in attitudes has been attributed to two factors: rising tuition costs and the reality that in today's marketplace, a graduate degree is often a necessary ingredient for a student's economic success. These factors have increased the student's stake in completing a degree (Schweitzer, 1992). The consequences to the student of academic failure, coupled with the subjective nature of field education evaluations, leaves field educators (in the school and community) especially vulnerable to student-initiated legal actions. Yet, there is a "widely accepted assumption in social work education" that the field placement provides the best opportunity to evaluate students' goodness of fit with the profession and is therefore used to weed out unsuitable students (Gibbs, 1994, p. 71).

Several authors document, however, that once admitted into social work programs, students are rarely prohibited from graduating with a professional social work degree (Born & Carroll, 1988; Cole & Lewis, 1993; Gibbs 1994). Cobb (1994) has surmised that social work educators neglect their gatekeeping responsibilities due in part to a paralyzing fear of the potential legal consequences of initiating a student dismissal. This fear is further compounded by a lack of clarity regarding the law in the social work literature. For example, in their study, Koerin and Miller (1995) characterized poor performance in the field setting as a nonacademic issue, in spite of findings from settled case law and social work literature to the contrary (Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz, 1978; Cobb, 1994). The Koerin and Miller study sought to document policies for terminating students for nonacademic reasons and to identify the situations and behaviors that led to termination. The researchers as well as some of the survey respondents improperly identified poor performance in the field as a nonacademic issue.

The characterization of student problems in the field setting as either academic or nonacademic is crucial for determining the legal rights and responsibilities of all parties involved. This article clarifies the confusion in the social work literature by offering an in-depth look at a single legal concept: the student's right to due process prior to dismissal from a social work program for problems in the field. Specific field education policy recommendations that are consistent with both the law and high educational standards are presented. The author's intent is to provide general information applicable to all social work faculty and administrators, especially those with field education responsibilities. The information from this article does not substitute for legal advice in cases where many legal issues are likely to be relevant at one time. In fact, most cases that are tried, including those cited here, involve several legal issues.

The law relating to due process and student dismissals has been relatively stable since the 1970s. A review of the facts and analyses of the leading U.S. Supreme Court decisions will give social work educators a solid understanding of the law of due process as it applies to student dismissals in social work education. Two cases in particular, Goss v. Lopez (1975) and Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz (1978), are discussed below to demonstrate the clarity of the law and the rationale that supports the United States Supreme Court's jurisprudence in this area. A third case, Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing (1985) is also presented to further exemplify the applicable concepts and to show how far the Supreme Court will go to support the academic decision making of faculty. Additional case references and policy recommendations that flow from the analyses are woven throughout the article. …

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