Understanding School Disciplinary Policies
Before "Balloon Boy" stole the headlines last Thursday, another little boy was making the news. Zachary Christie is the cute first grader who bought a camping tool–which included a combo fork, spoon and knife–to school so he could use it when eating lunch. In doing so, Zachary inadvertently violated the school district’s zero-tolerance weapons policy. He was initially suspended and sentenced to 45 days in reform school before the school district came to its senses and let him return to classes.
The incident seemed to leave most people expressing disbelief over the ridiculousness of some school disciplinary policies. But this isn’t the first time that stories like this have made headlines. In the past, I’ve also heard about kids getting suspended for carrying aspirin and other over-the-counter drugs that most of us would consider to be harmless.
I think every parent with school-aged kids who hears these stories probably thinks to themselves, "That could just have easily been my child." But for every kid who inadvertently violates school rules, many more kids legitimately break the rules.
Most public school discipline issues are handled with a simple time out or in-school suspension, which doesn’t impinge on a student’s access to education. But out-of-school suspensions or expulsions have become more common thanks to zero-tolerance policies. Unfortunately, suspensions and expulsions often stay on your child’s permanent school record and may put them at a disadvantage when applying for college.
Each state, and sometimes even each school district, has specific rules for how a school disciplinary process must be conducted, but there are some general principles of federal law which apply.
Students can typically be suspended or expelled for:
- Drug, alcohol or weapons possession
- Assaulting other students
- Repeated disruptive behavior
If your child attends a public school, they are entitled to what’s called "due process" before they can be suspended or expelled. Due process means that the suspension or expulsion must be done in a fair and evenhanded manner. This generally means that students and their parents have the right to:
- Know the school’s rules ahead of time
- Be given meaningful notice of the charges
- Have an opportunity to be heard in an appropriate setting
Familiarize Yourself With The Rules
At the beginning of the school year, your child should have received a student handbook or other document that spells out the rules everyone must follow. (These rules are often posted prominently at school, too.) You and your child should review these rules together when you receive them so you both understand what is and is not acceptable.
If your child is facing disciplinary action and the school hasn’t made the rules available to each student, you may be able to argue that your child didn’t know of the rule that he or she is accused of violating.
Understanding Adequate Notice
If your child is being suspended or expelled, you should receive a detailed oral or written notice of the charges, including:
- A description of the behavior that violated school rules
- A description of the evidence
- The number of days of suspension, and when the suspension begins and ends
- A specific date, time and location at which you can appear to challenge the suspension or expulsion
The Appeals Process
At the appeals hearing, school representatives will present the evidence against your child, and you’ll have the opportunity to present evidence in your child’s defense. Consider hiring an attorney to represent your child, particularly if there is the possibility of criminal charges. Your child doesn’t have to answer questions asked by the school or the police.
In many public school districts, parents may also appeal a suspension or expulsion decision to the school board or a special appointed committee. Even if your child has already served out a suspension before an appeal can be processed, you should appeal the decision if you think it was unfair, so that the punishment doesn’t continue to be a black mark on your child’s school record.