Suzanne Bogdan Teaches School Leaders About Timely Legal Issues
Suzanne Bogdan is an educator — just like her clients. When private schools face difficult issues, like student bullying, inappropriate teacher conduct or conflicts of interest among board members, she is ready to provide timely advice.
“Most of my employment and labor law practice revolves around independent schools,” says Bogdan, who is the managing partner of the Fort Lauderdale office of Fisher & Phillips, LLP. She is also chair of the firm’s 30-attorney Education Practice Group, which represents about 200 independent schools across the country serving students in grades K-12.
Bogdan’s practice includes preventive counseling, training, audits, policy reviews, drafting of contracts, defense of claims in the administrative setting, and litigation in all courts. She handles claims for age, race, sex, disability, religious, and national origin discrimination arising under the various civil rights laws, as well as claims involving family leave issues, wage hour matters, and breach of contract.
“Suzanne is an exceptional resource for us,” says Barbara Hodges, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools in Tampa. “Whenever she gets involved, she learns everything there is to know about the issue. She is a great problem solver. She herself is a great educator, who has done professional development seminars and webinars for our members on important issues for our members.”
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Many of the most difficult challenges for private schools involve student, teacher or adult conduct, including the problem of bullying. “Some teachers and administrators don’t yet realize the extent of bullying, which can extend beyond the classroom or playground area into cyberspace,” Bogdan says. “Holding informational sessions is important for students as well as teachers and parents, because you want everyone to feel that it’s safe to communicate with adults when a problem develops.”
Bogdan says teachers who see bullying in the hallway or on the athletic field, should share their information with others to determine the extent of the problem. “They should also watch out for students who might be targets, and step in, when necessary, to prevent an incident.”
Another continuing problem is the issue of appropriate student-adult boundaries. Bogdan and her team counsel schools on how to handle cases where teachers or other employees cross those lines, asking for dates, engaging in sexual relationships or becoming physically or emotionally abusive.
“There are people who work in schools who don’t understand that those actions are unethical, illegal and wrong,” she says. “There are also some adults who try to gain access to children, and operate under the radar.” Bogdan says schools must conduct a thorough screening and interviewing process before making a hiring decision, and then train staffers about the dos and don’ts of proper conduct.
Bogdan also trains board members, principals and heads of schools in avoiding conflicts of interest when awarding contracts, setting executive pay levels and other financial matters. “Because many schools are non-profits, they need to comply with Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines to maintain that status,” she says.
More recently, Bogdan has helped schools grapple with transgender issues involving both students and staff members. “People are much more open today about sexual orientation, and schools need to understand how to respond and manage their requests for accommodation,” she says. For instance, a recurring question is what restroom is most appropriate for a female student who is transitioning to become a male, or vice versa. There are also questions about sharing locker rooms or determining roommates when traveling on field trips.
“We try to have the school representative sit down with the student and parents and talk things through,” Bogdan says. “A student may have told friends about the gender transition, but not the entire school community. In that case, we recommend that the school follow the student’s lead and work out a cooperative plan that respects the student’s privacy, while protecting the rights of other students and the school itself.”
For independent schools that rely on families to pay tuition, the issue of parental misconduct is an ongoing challenge. For example, some parents insist on picking a certain teacher or demand that a coach put their child on a sports team.
“Only about 2 percent of parents cause problems for schools, but those issues take a great deal of time and attention to resolve,” Bogdan says.
Two years ago, Bogdan gave a presentation on the “Millennial parent” to more than 100 attendees at a National Association of Independent Schools conference. “Schools don’t know how to deal effectively with aggressive and intimidating parents,” she says. “However, there are steps they can take, such as outlining expectations for parent cooperation in the student enrollment contract, and reminding them of that agreement if they fail to meet that standard.”
Bogdan herself is a parent. She and her husband Tony, an attorney, have a son in college and a daughter in high school. “I’m not one of those difficult parents, because our children are perfect,” she says with a smile. To relax, Bogdan enjoys gardening, walking on the beach, scuba diving and playing tennis. “I try to walk 10,000 steps a day, which is a great way to stay fit,” she adds.
Two Decades of Experience
Bogdan grew up in Michigan, and came to Florida on family vacations in the early 1980s. Deciding to stay, she worked at a manikin company in Hialeah, and then became a legal secretary and paralegal before earning her law degree from the University of Miami. Her first legal job was in Memphis, but she soon returned to Florida, joining Fisher & Phillips in 1994 as a labor and employment law practitioner.
A year later, she was assigned a case that involved a private school’s termination of a teacher. “I started learning about private schools and have never stopped,” she says. “I was fascinated right from the start about the different issues they face.”
For instance, private schools typically hire new teachers in the spring for the upcoming fall semester. But some teachers don’t show up in August, creating an immediate staffing problem. “Private schools have different pay cycles and benefits compared with other types of employers, so their contracts, policies and procedures are also different,” Bogdan says.
After resolving that first case, Bogdan started building relationships with private schools across the state, beginning with St. Edward’s School in Vero Beach, which remains a client today.
“I found that many private schools did not understand what laws applied to them or didn’t know how to interpret complex regulations,” Bogdan says. She began counseling individual schools on issues like compliance with federal discrimination and wage and hour laws, as well as implementation of the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) requirements. Florida’s complex set of guidelines for student athletes pose other challenges for private school.
“Our clients really appreciate our efforts to help them understand their options,” says Bogdan. “I also try to teach them about the underlying issues, so if a similar problem occurs they already have the answer.”