Student discipline attorney Greg Smith has represented families in disciplinary hearings across the state.
- The School’s Authority
The procedure for suspension is set down in Connecticut General Statute § 10-233c. The law applies to all public schools in the state. That includes charter schools, magnet schools and tech schools.
To suspend, the principal owes the parents and their child very little due process. The administration must take two steps. First, the principal must tell the boy (it is almost always a boy) what he did to violate the district’s code of conduct. Second, the principal must give the child a chance to tell his side of the story. That does not mean they have to listen to it.
Under the law the administration can suspend a student for one of three reasons. One, his behavior on school grounds violated one of the board of education’s publicized policies. Two, it seriously disrupted the educational process. Three, it endangered people or property.
In these circumstances officials have more authority over the child than his parents do. The principal does have to notify the parents within twenty-four hours of the suspension. But before then parents have no right to take part in the principal’s investigation. And they cannot stop the police from taking part in it.
The principal has more authority than most parents realize. First, the administration can suspend if a student for conduct off school grounds. To do so, the student must have violated a publicized policy and seriously disrupted the educational process back at school. Second, the principal may suspend the same student many times. A principal can suspend a student for no more than ten days in a row. But in the same school year they can suspend the same student ten different times. And they can do it for up to fifty days in total.
Challenging a suspension in court is very difficult. Judges will not overturn the principal’s decision unless it “shocks the conscience.” This happens very rarely.
2. The Police
As noted above, the police have their own investigation to complete. Sometimes it ends in an arrest. In that event the family may need more than a student discipline attorney. If the police charge a student with a felony or class A misdemeanor, they must notify the superintendent of a child’s home district. They police may testify later if the board of education holds an expulsion hearing.
3. The Department of Children and Families
Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families may take part, too. School personnel must report to it every instance of suspected child abuse and neglect. If the Department investigates and finds that a student poses an imminent risk of personal injury to any of the district’s students, it must so notify the superintendent.
4. Juvenile Court
If the student is a minor, they may face charges in Juvenile Court. Their case will be protected by confidentiality. But Juvenile Court probation officers may talk to the superintendent about the conditions they set for the student’s return to school.
- Notice of the Expulsion Hearing
If the superintendent wants the board to consider expulsion, Connecticut General Statute § 10-233d governs procedure. The superintendent has ten days from the suspension to present their case. The board must give parents five days’ notice of its hearing. The notice will re-state the grounds for discipline.
Once the parents have hired a student discipline attorney, they should notify the superintendent. The superintendent does not have to share any of his or her evidence with the parents’ lawyer. But they must give the parents’ attorney an extra ten days to prepare.
Parents have an option. They can avoid a hearing and can keep the details of their child’s behavior out of the public record. They must agree, or stipulate, that their child committed an expellable offense. On this decision a student discipline lawyer’s advice can make a critical difference.
2. Students with Disabilities
When a child has a disability, the school must take an extra step. The principal must eliminate the possibility that the disability broke the rules. It would go against fundamental fairness to discipline a student simply for his disability.
To decide what part the disability played, the district gathers a panel. The members work as the “Manifestation Determination” team. Each person must know the child well. The team must include teachers and parents. Depending on the child, it might also include psychologists and counselors. For example, if a child had a disability in Math, the school’s psychologist could provide insight into the role of that on his behavior. The panel gathers and weighs evidence of the child’s disability. It looks at the facts of his alleged misconduct and the particulars of his history at school.
Each member must serve a purpose, but they don’t have to know the child personally. Teachers’ observations may help the team, but they are not essential. Relevant information might include a hospital’s psychiatric report, if the incident in question led to the evaluation.
The team finds the disability played no part in the violation, it will send the matter to the board for a hearing.
3. The Evidence
The board must hear the evidence for misconduct in open, public session. At the hearing the superintendent and their attorney will present their case. The board’s own attorney will advise its members on procedure. An independent hearing officer may take the board’s place.
Both attorneys make opening and closing statements. They have the right to present witnesses and cross-examine. The parents may subpoena a witness to testify.
The superintendent will have a principal or assistant principal testify to the facts. They will say what they saw and heard. They will also say what other students told them about the suspended student’s behavior.
The parents and their student discipline lawyer have little right to confront these other students. The superintendent may use hearsay testimony as long as the principal can corroborate what the students said.
When the superintendent needs to prove ‘disruption’, the statute allows them to introduce certain evidence. It permits them to show that the student’s misconduct took place close to a school. They may have evidence that it involved other students. Most seriously, they may be able to show violence, threats of violence or alcohol.
Court decisions have put forward other signs of conduct that disrupted life at school: How many other students heard or saw the behavior? How likely were others to hear about it back at school? Did it cause students and teachers to miss time in class talking about it? Did anyone feel threatened? How many parents called the school or kept their children home? Did it take principals away from their regular duties? Did the police or other officials have to come to school?
By itself, an arrest can disrupt.
Parents have taken boards to court over the disruptiveness of their child’s speech. Judges have ruled that, on the one hand, talk meant to hurt and intimidate clearly disrupts. This is especially true if it passes the test of ‘bullying’. So do ‘true threats,’ like talk, online or off, about harming a teacher. And joking online about potential targets, or musing about them in a journal, will count as disruption.
On the other hand, judges recognize that teenagers like to make fun of authority. They recognize that parody and obnoxiousness may offend adults — like saying the principal likes to smoke weed — but do not necessarily disrupt other adolescents.
7. The Board’s Decision
After the board hears from both sides on the facts of misconduct, the superintendent makes a recommendation. They can ask for expulsion up to 180 school days.
For two offenses they must ask for the full 180. First, the student brought to school a firearm, a deadly weapon, a dangerous instrument or a martial arts weapon. It might have been only a BB gun, or even a fake gun. Second, the student offered for sale or distribution a controlled substance.
The board decides whether to expel, and for how long. It deliberates in closed, executive session. If it votes to expel, the preponderance of the evidence must support its decision.
An experienced student discipline attorney will know how to appeal to the board for a shorter term of expulsion. For example, they may show that the student in question is not so different from their own.
8. Possible Terms of Expulsion
The Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause applies to periods of expulsion. The board must treat all students equally. In school discipline that means it may not expel one student longer than another for the exact same misconduct.
Even for the ‘mandatory’ offenses of weapons and drugs the board may exclude the student for fewer than 180 days.
The term is measured in 180 school-days. The full exclusion will thus last a school year. The board may apply this even to a Senior. This prevents them from coming back for a post-graduate year.
If the board expels the student, it must still give them an ‘alternative educational opportunity’ off school grounds. This ‘opportunity’ comes to all students up to sixteen years old. To a student with a disability the board must provide enough services for the child to stay on track with their plan.
The expelled student may not go on the grounds of any of the board’s schools for any school-sponsored activity. The board may offer the expelled student the chance to ask the superintendent for an early return. It will attach conditions, to be met both before and after the superintendent grants the return.
Here again an experienced student discipline attorney will know what to say to the board.
9. Student Records and Discipline
The superintendent must note discipline on the child’s ‘cumulative educational record’. Except for possession of a firearm by high schoolers, the superintendent must erase this notation from the record when the student graduates from high school. But if the superintendent has granted early return, they may erase the record earlier.
The expulsion travels with the student if he transfers to another public school.
III. PRIVATE SCHOOL DISCIPLINE
Constitutionally private schools owe their customers no more of a hearing than public schools do. However, unlike public schools, they must honor the terms of their contract with parents. That means they may not act arbitrarily or capriciously. It also means they may not violate the express or implied terms of their agreement on tuition. They must follow the disciplinary procedures they set down in their students’ handbook. To do otherwise is to break the terms of their agreement.
Student discipline attorney Greg Smith regularly represents families with children facing suspension or expulsion. He has appeared before pubic school boards of education and advised families dealing with a private school. The Connecticut Bar Association gave him an award in 2011 for his work as a pro bono student discipline lawyer.