Recommendation Letters Are A Teacher's Choice, And So Is Rescinding Them

by Lily
Originally Published: 
A teacher writing recommendation letters for students
vadimguzhva / iStock

As an educator, when I write a college recommendation, it is my word and my reputation that I put out there to support a young person as they launch into the world. If a student does anything — especially something as egregious as committing a hate crime — that makes me uncomfortable and actively disinclined to vouch for them, I am completely justified in my decision to rescind that recommendation.

In fact, I am under no obligation to write a recommendation for any student. I (happily) do so on my own time, not during school hours — meaning, they are not part of my job description, and I do not get paid to write them. These recommendations belong to me, not to the school or the student. As such, it is solely my decision to retract one, though I would never do so without great forethought and personal struggle.

Despite this, a Massachusetts community is in uproar because a teacher rescinded a student’s recommendation. Three teachers in Stoughton, Massachusetts, have been disciplined over their response to a student who used tape to make a swastika on a school wall. Two teachers, one of whom is an Army veteran, received disciplinary letters because they spoke openly about the incident after police determined the student’s action did not constitute a hate crime and the school refused to notify parents of the student body.

These types of incidents are generally thought of as “teachable moments.” However, the swastika-marking student’s parents felt it was “unfair” to their child that two of the teachers chose to discuss his actions in constructive ways both inside and outside of the classroom. This reaction is extremely frustrating, as teachers around the country regularly see parents jump to their children’s defense rather than allow them to suffer the consequences of their actions.

The third teacher, however, went further than simply discussing the issue in class. They called a college to rescind the letter of recommendation they had written for the student and offered a full explanation of why they were revoking their recommendation. Upon learning of this, the student’s parents formally complained to the school board, saying that such an action was harmful to their child. The result? The superintendent gave the teacher a 20-day suspension.

But the fact is, teachers are not contractually obligated to hide a student’s behavior from a college. Under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), schools have the right to disclose student records without parental consent, specifically in a college admissions process. FERPA states that “a school may disclose education records, without parental consent (§ 99.31(a)(2)), to another school in which a student seeks or intends to enroll.” College applications would clearly fall under the category of “another school in which a student seeks or intends to enroll”; therefore, it would be within a teacher’s rights to call to rescind their recommendation and disclose information that pertains to their decision.

Teachers are under no contractual obligation to not disclose a student’s behavior to a college. In fact, under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, there is a clear clause that there are specific exemptions to when permission must be gotten to disclose records, which include exemptions for admission purposes: “What are the exceptions to general consent? To schools in which a student seeks or intends to enroll.” College applications would clearly fall under disclosing to a school where the student was seeking admission. Therefore, a teacher who calls to rescind their recommendation would be within their rights to disclose information that pertains to that admission process.

Personally and professionally, I would have no qualms about refusing to attach my name and reputation to a student who committed such an act. This student’s actions are a blatant hate crime, and there is a clear rationale to rescind a recommendation.

There are consequences to all actions. In this case, the student should be disciplined for committing a hate crime, not the teachers who attempted to educate other students about bigotry and ant-isemitism, or who refused to provide a letter of recommendation for a student based their egregious behavior. This teacher made the right call, and they deserve to be fully reinstated. As parents, we need to do better than fight every battle for our children, especially when they are clearly in the wrong.

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