IN THE TIME OF COVID:
School discipline policies are guidelines that outline the rules of a school. They’re important because they help to keep order in schools and to protect students from violence or abuse by other students, teachers, or administrators. In extreme cases, school discipline policies can also result in children being subject to the criminal justice system.
How has COVID-19 affected school discipline?
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, police were called to the home of twelve-year old Isaiah Elliott. Isaiah, who
suffers from ADHD, had been virtually attending school from home, and Isaiah’s art teacher had informed a school resource officer that Isaiah was playing with what she believed to be a toy gun instead of paying
attention. The child reportedly was suspended for five days, although his parents said that he was simply
moving a nerf gun from side to side. School officials argued that Isaiah could be charged with a crime if he
brought the gun to school, and the case received national media attention. Other students have been arrested for missing virtual classes or required to return in-person class, against the wishes of their family.
Children are returning to school after months of isolation, and many students will have endured considerable trauma. Research links the trauma associated with natural disasters and other traumatizing events to behavioral issues and negative learning outcomes. Parents, students, school administrators and school resource officers are left with questions of law, policy, and enforcement.
Know Your Rights
The best way for a parent/student to ensure fair and equitable treatment is to know your rights.
What do you need to know about school discipline?
A major underlying challenge in school discipline is the often-significant disparity in power and knowledge between a school district or its employees versus a child or the child’s parent. This disparity manifests itself in many ways, including (1) the lengthy and complex student codes of conduct written by districts and binding often unknowing students; (2) the lack of recourse mechanisms available if a student believes their process rights have been violated; (3) the limited avenues for appeal that students have; and (4) the potential for inequities resulting from both mandatory punishments and an excess of discretion given to principals.
What are the differences between mandatory and discretionary punishments?
Mandatory punishments are those that schools are required to give—by law—on the occurrence of certain conduct. Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code sets out a long list of circumstances that call for mandatory punishments.
If school is contemplating the use of a mandatory punishment resulting in expulsion, suspension, or transfer to an alternative school, it must still consider the six mitigating factors mentioned in the TEC above.
These are non-mandatory punishments. Giving a principal or other disciplinary decision-maker discretion to fashion a punishment based on all of the circumstances can help avoid some of the harsh consequences associated with mandatory punishments. However, discretionary punishments are by definition subject to the discretion, and biases, of those who wield power.
If a student or parent thinks that a school is wrongfully claiming its hands are tied (i.e., that punishment in a given case is mandatory), they should first consult the student code of conduct, which will list which types of offenses result in mandatory punishments.
What is DAEP?
DAEP, or Disciplinary Alternative Education Program, is a type of punishment that districts may give to students, involving the transfer of the student to another school. DAEP is second only to expulsion as the most extreme form of punishment available to districts.
What are the six mitigating factors that a school must consider if a punishment could result in expulsion, suspension, or transfer to an alternative school?
- The intent behind the student’s conduct.
- Whether the student acted in self-defense.
- The student’s disciplinary history.
- Any disability the student has that bars them from understanding why their conduct was wrongful.
- Whether the student is involved with childhood protective services (e.g., if a child is in foster care, that supports greater leniency); and
- Whether the student is homeless
What can a parent do if they believe their child has been improperly disciplined?
A grievance, which is a formal complaint process that every district must have, is sometimes an option. Grievance forms are available on a district’s website, though an attorney is recommended to help navigating the grievance process because it is complex and typically involves three levels of appeal.
Apart from submitting a grievance, few if any options are available to hold a district accountable for failing to give a student proper process—and grievances are typically reviewed internally, with the student code of conduct limiting which issues are subject to review.
Texas law only ensures that expulsions may be appealed, and only certain types of expulsions may be challenged in court. However, a district’s code of conduct or other document expressing district policy may supplement which types of punishments may be appealed. If a parent decides to appeal their child’s punishment or file a grievance, they should NOT sign any paperwork consenting to the punishment.
How could schools better serve students?
No policy is ever perfect. Despite its challenges, the pandemic forced schools to innovate. Coming out of this pandemic, schools and school districts have the opportunity to reflect on and improve discipline policies. To better support students and families through disciplinary issues, CHILDREN AT RISK makes the following recommendations:
» Prioritize constructive forms of discipline rather than exclusionary ones like suspension and DAEP. For example, IDRA found that disciplinary referrals decreased by 14% among students who participated in an IDRA tutoring program. The program involved taking a struggling middle/high school student and matching them with a struggling elementary school student.
» Districts should publish data on school disciplinary actions that are disaggregated by race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Schools should change their use of mandatory and discretionary discipline policies if they have data showing that racial, gender, or gender identity groups are being disproportionately affected.
» Schools should make sure the channels of communication are open, e.g., one principal we talked to made an effort to know and greet students by name, make personal connections with families, and give out her cell phone number to every parent. This fostered greater trust among all stakeholders of the school, allowing disciplinary proceedings to go more smoothly.