As the school year winds down, students get wound up. You can picture it: students reporting cruel exchanges on social media; maybe they drink alcohol, vape or take drugs at culmination activities; and contraband, like M80 fireworks and 100 bottle rockets, stored “for a friend” in a student’s locker. For these reasons (among many others) I receive multiple questions about student discipline at the end of the school year.
Below are five tips to ensure school leaders know what to do when they discover those firecrackers.
1. Understand due process
Even in the most trying situations, administrators must balance school safety with individual student rights. Schools cannot simply send students home indefinitely or permanently. Even when the Dean of Students discovers those ten M80 fireworks and 100 bottle rockets, she must provide the student who housed those gems with due process.
Due process for a suspension generally includes a conference with the student and written notice of the suspension. For expulsion, due process requires a hearing where the school and the student can present evidence to a hearing panel or school board. Due process ensures that public schools, which minors are legally obligated to attend, give the student a chance to be heard. This remains true even in the most egregious situations.
2. Know where to find the rules providing due process
Each school leader should have easy access to the rules governing their school’s student discipline procedures. School districts are bound by Education Code section 48900 et seq. and their board adopted policies and administrative regulations. Charter schools are bound by their charter petition, which explains the discipline process in Element 10 or Section J of the petition. Very often, the student-parent Handbook also explains the school’s restorative justice, progressive discipline, and suspension/expulsion procedures. School leaders should have easy access to all of these documents so when a situation arises, they can find and follow the procedures.
School leaders must know how to investigate alleged misconduct. Best practice is to receive annual training, so leaders remember what to do. Does your principal or dean of students know the following?
Prior to searching a student (e.g., asking a student to empty her pockets or looking in her purse or locker), the administrator must have “reasonable suspicion” that the search of the specific student will disclose evidence of a violation of school disciplinary rules or a violation of the law.
Collect written statements from students, teachers, and/or administrators involved in the incident.
Take photographs of contraband and weapons. Place a ruler in the photo for perspective.
Review the student’s discipline history.
A proper investigation can assist the school in deciding what consequence is appropriate and in the event of an expulsion, ensure the school has substantial evidence to present during a hearing.
4. Follow the procedures
Administrators cannot skip steps. If your school has a restorative justice policy, it must be followed prior to suspending or expelling student unless the misconduct is a mandatory offense. For example, an administrator must recommend expulsion if a student brings a firearm on school grounds. In contrast, for a first offense of bullying, schools generally must follow progressive discipline or provide other means of correction before recommending an expulsion. Every step along the way must be followed. The typical steps for an expulsion include:
Written notice of the suspension
Written recommendation for expulsion
Written notice of the expulsion hearing
Written decision following the hearing
Board approval of any decision to expel
The failure to follow the procedures can result in a decision not to expel or a successful legal challenge to an expulsion.
5. Additional procedures apply to students with Section 504 Plans or IEPs
Federal laws provide an additional layer of protection for students with disabilities, so school leaders must be familiar with Section 504 and IEPs. Depending on the number of days of suspension or if there is a recommendation for expulsion, prior to taking any action, the school has to hold a manifestation determination review meeting. This ensures that students with disabilities are not removed from public schools for conduct that is directly and substantially related to their disability.
I provide training for teachers and administrators on best practices for investigating and responding to student misconduct and support during the expulsion process so am very aware that this is a complicated process for people who really do have the students’ and school’s best interests in mind. If you have questions about student rights and discipline procedures, the Law Offices of Megan M. Moore can help!