In the 28 years attorney Patrice McCarthy has been representing school boards, she has helped administrators to grapple with the impact of the Internet and social media on free speech rights and regulations.
Among many other things, McCarthy has also helped guide districts facing increasing state and federal accountability under the federal No Child Left Behind act. She hopes to impart that experience to a new generation of lawyers as the first Connecticut attorney to chair the National School Boards Association's Council of School Attorneys.
McCarthy, the deputy director and general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, was recently named to the national post. The national Council of School Attorneys was formed in 1967 to provide information and assistance to attorneys representing school districts and now represents 3,000 attorneys across the country.
"One of my priorities will be efforts to increase the engagement of the younger members of the council, many of whom don't have the opportunity to travel," said McCarthy, just before leaving for a national conference of the group in San Francisco. "I'd like to provide more programs as webinars."
She has served on the board of directors for 11 of the 25 years she's been a member of the national organization, and has often been a presenter at national conventions and events. In 2007, she received the NSBA Federation Member Distinguished Service Award.
McCarthy has also served as treasurer and president of the Connecticut Council of School Attorneys.
She said free speech concerns frequently occupy school boards. "Issues of both student and employee speech rights continue to evolve as technology changes," she said. "Facebook and Twitter simply weren't issues years ago. Districts have had to develop policies that were legally defensible."
Younger school children do not enjoy the level of free speech protections as adults, according to U.S. Supreme Court rulings on offensive speech.
But there's still debate on how much freedom older students enjoy. The private Choate Rosemary Hall prep school banned access to Facebook at school libraries and expelled several students last year over posts that denigrated classmates.
In the most famous Connecticut case in recent years, a high student in Burlington, Conn., was banned from running for re-election to the post of class treasurer after using vulgar terms on a blog to describe school administrators who the student thought had cancelled a battle of the bands-type event. The student challenged the punishment, and the case went to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the district.
McCarthy also advises officials on broader issues of governance, particularly for poorly performing districts taken over by state regulators. "It's an area that has grown significantly; every new state and federal law impacting education expands the issues school board attorneys have to address," she said.
McCarthy's first involvement with education law came when she helped to represent special education students at a University of Connecticut School of Law clinic. She graduated with honors from that school in 1981 after receiving her B.A. from Mount Holyoke College.
The Wallingford resident said she is looking forward to her volunteer national role.
"It's a real honor to have the opportunity to work with this amazing group of attorneys around the country. They give so much of themselves to support young lawyers," she said.