Academic Hearings/School Discipline
Students facing discipline at K-12 public schools should never attempt to navigate the discipline process without competent representation. Access to education is a right, not a privilege. Therefore, students must be given due process of the law before they can be expelled from public school.
School discipline has experienced tremendous changes in the past twenty years. Instances of teachers and school administrators handling student discipline as learning experiences to correct misbehavior are largely gone. The main goal is no longer to help guide troubled students toward making better decision, but rather to strictly enforce ridged discipline codes designed to punish and remove students from normal academic settings. Many parents are shocked to discover that student misconduct that would have merited Saturday school, detention, or possibly short suspensions in their formative years now result in their children facing expulsion or removal to alternative schools as the presumptive punishments. If your child has been accused of misconduct or is facing an academic discipline process it is crucial that you consult with an experienced attorney before meeting with any school personnel or giving any statements.
School discipline procedures vary widely between school districts, but one common factor is that they tend to move very quickly. If your child is accused of a student discipline offense, the investigation will likely begin immediately. Most schools will begin their investigations by pulling the accused student out of class and bringing them to the front office for questioning. This questioning is not in a form that most parents would expect or be comfortable with. Parents might expect that students are questioned by guidance counselors with the goal of understanding and correcting bad behavior. However, in today’s environment such questioning is typically conducted by Disciplinary Deans and armed, uniformed police officers. Most schools will not even provide advanced notice to parents of such questioning, even when they are questioning minor children. This is common even when the children are as young as kindergarteners and are susceptible to even the most limited forms of coercion. In many cases, the deans and officers will not simply ask a student their side of events, but rather engage in intense interrogations utilizing techniques designed for use on adult criminal suspects. For instance, Deans and police officers will often continue to pressure and question students who deny allegations of wrongdoing until the children acquiesce and admit to a version of events that conforms with the predetermined narrative of the investigation. While such interrogation techniques are extremely effective in eliciting confessions, they can produce false confessions as often as truthful ones.
After questioning the accused student, schools will typically continue their investigation by questioning other students who may have witnessed the events. These interviews almost universally happen in private without any outside observers or recording equipment to ensure the integrity of the process. Potential witnesses will usually be asked to write statements. It is common for school personnel to dictate to students specific wording that they want included, and often times to even write the statements themselves and then pressure students to sign them.
Once the school is satisfied that they have obtained enough witness statements to verify the student offense, they will usually move forward with charging the student with a high-level offense that exposes the student to the possibility of expulsion. This is true for school discipline offenses that might seem minor in nature, such as a student defending themselves from attack by a bully, using profane or derogatory language, bringing tobacco or alcohol to school, or even brief displays of affection such as kissing between students. If your child has been accused of any misconduct at school it is critical that you treat the matter seriously and immediately seek legal advice. Even seemingly minor violations can lead to expulsion in today’s educational environment.
Once the school has decided to formally charge or accuse a student with a violation of the disciplinary code, often times called a code of student conduct, the schools will usually impose an immediate suspension. For serious offenses, the suspension is typically ten days long. Many parents assume that the suspension is the school’s response and the formal disciplinary action against the student, however, it is usually just a preliminary measure designed to immediately remove the student from the educational environment. Once the student is removed from school, the parents will typically receive a letter informing them that their child is facing expulsion or the possibility of removal from the normal academic setting into an alternative school. The same letter will probably provide notice of a hearing where the student can address the allegations against them. The hearing will usually take place right at the end of the ten day suspension. These hearings are often referred to by innocuous sounding names such as “Discipline Team Meetings.” It is vital that parents recognize these for what there are, formal academic disciplinary hearings that can result in extremely serious punishments. If you receive notice from your child’s school to attend a disciplinary meeting or hearing, you should immediately call an experienced academic discipline attorney. An experienced school discipline lawyer can prepare you for what to expect at these hearings, train you to help advocate for your child, and even represent you at the hearings. If your child has been accused of a student discipline offense or is facing expulsion from school, please call attorney Michael D. Barber for a free consultation.
An initial disciplinary hearing is usually attended by various school personnel such as principals, vice-principals, administrators, deans, teachers, guidance counselors, and increasingly school resource officers. There is usually someone from the school district presiding over the hearings. That person might have different titles depending on the county, but will often be described as an area administrator or area superintendent. The hearing will start with the school presenting a synopsis of the case. When students and parents attend the hearings without an experienced school discipline attorney, these hearings often conclude shortly after the reading of the synopsis with the presiding entity summarily verifying the offense and pronouncing the academic discipline. This student discipline is likely to include removal from school for some period of time, whether it is full expulsion, or removal to an alternative school. An experienced school discipline attorney can help ensure that your child’s rights to a fair process are observed, and maximize your chances of successfully defending against the allegations of student misconduct.
If the student successfully defends against the allegations, or convinces the presiding individual that the offense is too minor to warrant expulsion or removal from school, then the discipline process will likely end and the student will be allowed to return to class. However, if the offense is verified and the school proceeds with attempts to expel or otherwise remove a student, then the process can be extended by requesting an administrative appeal. Many counties contract with an independent hearing officer to preside over the administrative appeal hearings and determine whether the offense was incorrectly verified and whether the student’s due process rights were properly observed. If the hearing officer rules that the student’s rights were violated or the evidence did not support the verification of the offense, then the student will usually be allowed to return to class. In rare circumstances involving denial of due process rights, the hearing officer might order the entire disciplinary process to be restarted with additional procedural safeguards. If the hearing officer rules in favor of the school and verifies the offense and the expulsion or removal from school, then the internal school discipline process will likely be at an end.
In certain cases, a final ruling within the school discipline process does not mean that you are out of options for fighting the allegations. You might still be able to find recourse with the court systems. Academic discipline hearings are considered administrative hearings. Administrative hearings are quasi-judicial in nature. In Florida, final administrative rulings are subject to appeals to circuit courts called Petitions for Writ of Certiorari. The ability to file an appeal through a Petition for Writ of Certiorari is extremely confined by time-limits. The entire petition must be filed within thirty days of the final ruling being issued. If you think that your child’s rights were violated during the school discipline process, or that the school did not follow the law or their own internal procedures, then you need to immediately seek the advice of a school discipline lawyer who has experience appealing such matters through the court. Michael D. Barber is experienced and knowledgeable with filing such appeals to the courts through Petitions for Writs of Certiorari. Please call me today for a free consultation to discuss all of your options.