It is hard to believe that half of the 2018-19 school year has already passed!  As students begin the second semester, we thought a refresher for school administrators and board members on the state and federal laws governing student discipline would be helpful.

District Student Discipline Policies/Code of Conduct

A district’s policies should clearly define when student conduct rises to the level of a disciplinary offense. The available disciplinary sanctions should be realistic and proportional to the nature of the misconduct. Policies specific to a particular type of misconduct, i.e. bullying or drug possession, should be consistent with and reference the district’s general student code of conduct.   Also, individual school handbooks addressing expectations for student conduct should be consistent with the district’s code.

Once a student has violated the code of conduct, the district must follow its policy when imposing punishment and ensure that the same punishment is applied to all students in similar circumstances. For example, if the district’s discipline policy states that a student may be suspended for up to five days for fighting, all of the students involved in a fight generally should receive the same punishment. Also, administrators should avoid charging students with a general offense such as “disturbing school.” Instead, the student and his/her parent/guardian should be given written notice of the specific conduct that violates district policy.

Discipline for Regular Education Students

Teachers should make students aware of their classroom rules and reinforce the district’s code of conduct when it becomes necessary.  Likewise, administrators should work with teachers and students to provide support. Discipline does not end in the classroom. Administrators should work with district transportation supervisors to make sure that bus drivers and assistants are properly trained to handle misconduct on school buses and to complete the necessary disciplinary referrals.

State law allows school administrators to suspend a student for up to ten school days for any one offense and for a total of no more than 30 days in a school year. The 30 day maximum includes both in-school and out-of-school suspensions.  Within three days after a student is suspended, the administration must schedule a conference to discuss the matter with the student’s parent/guardian. While the conference may actually occur after that three-day window if the parent/guardian informs the administration that they are unavailable to meet on the scheduled date, the administration must initially schedule the conference within that time period.

When expulsion is recommended, a hearing must be held within 15 days of written notice of the recommendation.  In many districts, a hearing officer, usually a current or retired district administrator, conducts that hearing.  A student’s parent/guardian must be given written notice of the reason for the expulsion recommendation as well as the opportunity to review the documentation that the administration has collected during its investigation. It is the administration’s responsibility to prove that the student violated district policy and that expulsion is warranted. In that regard, the administrator who attends the expulsion hearing should be familiar with the evidence supporting the expulsion recommendation. Evidence may include written statements as well as live witnesses. Live witnesses may be necessary where the student denies committing the misconduct and the administration thus must prove that the misconduct occurred. At the hearing, the student may be represented by legal counsel and present witnesses.  The student also has the right to question any witnesses presented by the administration. Following the hearing, a written decision must be issued within ten days. An expulsion decision may be appealed to the board of trustees and ultimately to the circuit court.

Discipline for Special Education Students

When a special education student violates the student code of conduct, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) impacts the discipline process.  Under the IDEA, a district may suspend a special education student for a maximum of ten cumulative school days without providing the student with educational services. These ten days are often referred to as “free days.”  If a special education student is suspended or otherwise removed from school for more than ten cumulative days, the district must begin providing the student with educational services beginning on the 11th day of removal.

Disciplinary action that results in removal for more than ten consecutive days, such as a recommendation for expulsion, is considered a change of placement, requiring that the student’s IEP team conduct a manifestation determination to determine the relationship between the student’s misconduct and his/her disability before the school moves forward with the expulsion. Suspensions of more than ten cumulative days also may be a change in placement necessitating a manifestation determination.  As such, administrators should avoid suspending special education students when possible and consider implementing other disciplinary measures such as in-school suspensions. An in-school suspension generally does not count toward the ten day maximum, provided that the student continues to receive his/her special education and regular education services.

During a manifestation determination, the IEP team must consider the student’s IEP (including any existing Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)), as well as teacher observations, and information shared by the parent, including any outside evaluations and/or medical diagnoses.  After reviewing that information, the IEP team must determine if the conduct was (1) caused by or had a direct and substantial relationship to the child’s disability, or (2) was the direct result of the district’s failure to implement the IEP.

If the team determines that either (1) or (2) is true, then the conduct is a manifestation of the student’s disability, and the student must be returned to the placement from which she/he was removed, unless the parent and the district agree to a change of placement.  If a FBA/BIP was not already in place, the IEP team also must conduct a FBA and develop a BIP designed to address the conduct that led to the suspension/expulsion.

Documentation

Documentation is key in proving student misconduct.  Documentation may include student statements, suspension/expulsion notices, information posted on social media, and teacher notes. As it relates to student statements, administrators should instruct student witnesses and/or the victim to write down exactly what they saw and heard.  Also, the administration should ask the student who is suspected of the misconduct to write a statement before the student is sent home from school. If a student is young or otherwise incapable of writing a detailed statement, the administrator may interview the student and write a statement based on the information provided by the student.  The student should then read the statement or have it read to them and sign to verify that it is accurate.

Should you have any questions about the topics discussed above or wish to have a presentation on these and other topics at an upcoming professional development, please do not hesitate to contact us.