Recent high-profile cases of reported abuse in local schools have shined a light on a Latin phrase that many of us may not have heard of before -- in locos parentis. Defined literally, it means "in the place of a parent."

Used as case law, it refers to the legal responsibility of an individual or organization to take on some of the duties and responsibilities of a parent. That, in itself, doesn't sound controversial. But when you dig deeper, it may be.

In loco parentis has actually protected several school district employees from criminal prosecution, even though they were found to have possibly been abusing students. The legal reasoning is that they were standing in for parents and, as such, their activity is not criminal.

The State Attorney's Office told Daily News Staff Writer Heather Osbourne that the case law provides teachers the right to administer a reasonable level of discipline to their students. He said recent case law states teachers and parents have the right to commit simple battery, which does not constitute a crime.

"A parent or someone standing in the place of the parent can be convicted of felony child abuse if it goes beyond a reasonable level of discipline," Marcille said. "That's if the teachers were likely to cause physical or mental injury."

At least one alleged abuse case is being reviewed, and possibly being reopened as officials dig further into the nuances of the common law. There is a "fine line" between criminal action and policy violation, they say, and each case needs to be carefully evaluated based on individual facts and circumstances.

One thing seems certain however. Parents who don't use corporal punishment are probably shocked to find out that, in some cases, teachers or staff members can physically handle their children in ways they never would.

While taking a paddle or open hand to your child was once commonplace, it's arguably less socially acceptable in today's society. And it's far from clear how parents feel about their children coming home with bruises at the hand of educational personnel.