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Common Questions Parents Ask About School Discipline
Question #1: What happened to the other child that was involved (in an incident)?
Telling a parent what happened to another parent’s child usually amounts to a violation of the other child and family’s privacy rights. Years ago, Congress felt it important enough to pass a comprehensive law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Law prohibits revealing information from a pupil’s record, a record such as a suspension or office referral, unless certain conditions are met. For example, one condition is a parent signing a release of information form. As adults we enjoy privacy rights in areas such as medical records, bank records, and many others. Most individuals don’t want government officials unnecessarily providing personal information to others. This is what privacy is about; privacy protection is why school personnel can’t legally tell about what happened to the other child involved in a discipline incident. An appropriate response to a question about what happened to the other child is to say something like, “As much as I would like to tell you, there is law that prevents me. Suffice it to say, we investigated and provided a fair consequence, when required, using our discipline code and the type of misconduct found, if any.”
Question #2: Can I talk to the other child that was involved?
Outside school hours, a student’s parent may agree to let a person talk to their child. During school hours there is no mechanism for a visitor or community member to interview a child unless they have a legal privilege. For example, the principal is given a legal privilege by law or a peace officer might have a legal privilege or duty under certain circumstances. We also need to remember that every moment the child is at school, the school is implementing either an explicit curriculum (e.g., teaching read, math) or an implicit curriculum (e.g., providing an opportunity to develop social skills). Both the legislature and the governing board expect interruptions unrelated to the educational program to be kept at an absolute minimum. The governing board has placed a duty on the principal to make sure the children are engaged in the curriculum.
Question #3: What is the difference between sending my child home for the rest of the day and suspension?
Suspension from school means removal of a pupil from ongoing instruction for adjustment purposes. A suspension from school requires an investigation, the provision of “due process” or fair procedures including parent notice. A suspension from school involves a 1-5 day removal starting the day after the incident. A suspension from class by the teacher is another type of suspension. A suspension from class, like the third type of suspension, called an on-campus suspension (or in-school suspension), can only be used for a limited, specified list of offenses. Removing a child from school for disciplinary reasons for more than the remainder of the day is a suspension. A suspension is a more formal procedure producing a student record. Suspension records must be maintained and, teachers must be told of the misconduct. In contrast, sending a child home for the remainder of the day avoids the stigma of a suspension, involves parent agreement, and is shorter in length than even a one-day suspension. Once a student is suspended from school, the responsibility shifts to the parent to provide adequate supervision for the child.
Question #4: Does my child have the right to defend himself if he is hit first?
To reduce the likelihood of injury to everyone (students and staff), school children are taught to seek the assistance of an adult if they have been attacked. In a school setting, there is an adult, almost always, within eyesight. On the way to and from school, such help might not be as readily available.
In the general community, the legal privilege of “self-defense” does not apply as broadly as many people think. The school has adopted a legal definition of self-defense as follows: “one may use the force necessary in proportion to the threat if the person reasonably believed such force was necessary against imminent unlawful force at the hands of other party.” Furthermore, in the definition of self-defense, the phrase, “in proportion to” requires a careful, calculated use of force by the person hoping to argue he had a self-defense privilege. Let’s assume an unarmed attacker, close in size to the victim, punches the victim. The victim could not claim a self-defense privilege if he grabbed a baseball bat and struck the attacker in the head; such an action would not be “in proportion to” the force used by the attacker. Also consider that one typically loses any right to claim a self-defense privilege if the person has already used force (e.g., like in a fight or what is referred to as a mutual combat fight).
In conclusion, there are a limited number of circumstances under which a student could claim they have a right to defend themselves. Given the complexity and limited applicability of the self-defense privilege, it seems wise to recommend to children that they avoid fighting and to promptly report to a school authority any improper use of force. Also consider that “defending” yourself may frequently be accomplished without the use of force (e.g., moving out of the way, making it difficult to make contact with you).
Question #5: Isn’t it the school’s responsibility to handle discipline at school? My child is good at home. Why do I have to be called?
Granted, it is the school’s responsibility to handle discipline at school. We expect schools to have both a system in place to promote positive, prosocial behavior in children and to provide consequences to those engaging in prohibited conduct. We think parents should welcome contact from the school. Both the school and parent should work together to help a student learn to follow school rules. Students who follow rules and directions at school are more likely to do the same at home (and vice versa). A parent cannot help the school if they do not know what has happened; this takes contact such as a phone call. School staff have learned that when the parent supports the school by taking interest and sharing responsibility to develop and implement action plans, students do better. In the case of a suspension, the law requires the school to contact the parent.
Question #6: Why can’t my child stay in the office all day?
The personnel that work in a school office frequently operate under high levels of stress, juggling multiple responsibilities, and completing numerous assignments. The business of the school could not be completed without the work of these individuals. It is a fair assumption that a child cannot be provided with adequate supervision unless an employee is assigned to watch over the child and provide such assistance. However, parents and the community expect and deserve to have each child adequately supervised whenever the child is at school. Staying in the office, for whatever period of time, take the time and attention of someone. Schools are not adequately staffed to provide, in the school office, ongoing supervision.
Question #7: The teacher does not like my child. Why are teachers always writing referrals on my kid and missing the other kids?
There is nothing wrong with asking a principal to review the rates and types of referrals submitted by your child’s teacher or to observe in the classroom to help determine if the rules of conduct are applied equally and consistently to all children. It is possible that, as a parent, you may not have a solid foundation for determining whether children other than your child are being referred. It is also possible that the children referred are the children engaging in prohibited conduct. Finally, when there have been previous incidents of misconduct, adults monitor those child(ren) more closely than the child free of previous conduct difficulties.