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Student Codes of Conduct

In taking charge of students and teaching them, twentieth-century educators repeatedly faced the challenge of designing codes of conduct. Doing so required attention to multiple and sometimes seemingly conflicting issues: school organizational needs, the goals of education, and the nebulous area of personal rights both for those in charge and for those being controlled. Educators had to identify features conducive for learning and then set forth rules and consequences for misconduct that would allow problem children to be handled constructively while the behaving majority of students continued to learn without disruption. In short, educators had to define ways to support classroom productivity, encourage student academic progress, and bring misbehaving individuals back to positive conduct so that they could resume learning.

In this task, educators, administrators, and staff became increasingly conscious of legal issues connected to students' rights, juvenile legal status, and the handling of student crime. All of these issues were addressed independently by different school boards across the nation and handled differently by school boards and courts over time.

Creating Student Codes of Conduct

The issues involved in the process of developing these codes of conduct constitute an important part of pedagogical debate and ongoing courtroom deliberation. For example, some judicial decisions have attempted to define those school requirements and regulations which a court would deem "reasonable." Under these decisions, a properly written document must meet four criteria in order to carry a legal presumption of validity:

  • The rules had to be in writing: Regulations students had to obey without a specific verbal command must be in writing.
  • The rules had to be specific: Policies had to clearly stated to students, and without referring to an outside source or document the rules had to explain what was expected and what was prohibited.
  • The writing had to be authorized: The writer of the rules had to have the authority to define them.
  • The written rules had to be published: The code of conduct had to be printed and distributed, for example in student handbooks, in letters home to parents, in public announcements during class time and assemblies, and in postings on bulletin boards.

Richard Curwin, a professor of Education at San Francisco State University, devised criteria for making codes of conduct more effective. His suggestions were:

  • To use positive rather than negative statements
  • To be definite about proper and prohibited behavior
  • To be brief
  • To spell out consequences

Thus, the courts began the process of educating the educators on how to arrange the business of school so that when it responded to misbehavior its rulings would be deemed valid in the legal setting.

Content of Codes

In light of their wisdom, experience, and training, educators have devised student codes of conduct to meet their schools' particular goals and challenges. Some school codes employ step programs that distinguish first-time offenders from repeat offenders. These codes hand down mild penalties for first-offense students but then graduate the penalties for the misconduct of repeat offenders. In these cases, students face consequences determined by their records of behavior. Thus, for a repeat offender, a minor infraction might carry the serious penalty of suspension while the same infraction might elicit only a verbal reminder for the first-time offender. Some schools set aside special classrooms for extra training in matters of self-control, conflict resolution, and cooperation. Schools elicit parents' participation and support in encouraging their children back to positive behavior and academic progress.

Discipline policies state clearly that rules benefit everyone in the educational community and are in effect inside school buildings, on school property, inside school-owned vehicles, and at school-sponsored activities on or off campus. Codes include rules about attendance, absence, and tardiness. They outline steps for parents to take in excusing their children from class and instruct teachers how to keep records of student attendance.

Patterns of unexcused absence or tardiness are quantified and carry penalties or repercussions that relate to the extent of the patterns of absence. Misbehaving students might be detained in the classroom after other students are free to go on to non-classroom activities, or they might be required to attend a Saturday detention period. During these times, students might be given extra academic work or be required to perform maintenance chores on school property. Repeat offenders are subject to a number of potential penalties, including the following: removal from school; removal from class to a study room; placement in an on-sight suspension area; suspension for a specified time; and expulsion. Although individuals who act out are arguably the ones most in need of education and support, they tend to be separated from others.

When students break the law on school property, police officers must take over for educators. Students who use alcohol or other drugs, who have in their possession or deliver to others controlled substances, who carry weapons, and who assault others, are all subject to the same laws they would face elsewhere in the community. Therefore, these forms of misconduct are not within the school's jurisdiction solely.

Students can be charged for crimes committed on school property; they can go to court and face court decisions that place them in juvenile detention centers. Clearly, school codes must address a vast range of conduct, take into consideration innumerable factors that lie in or beyond the education setting.

The codes must respond legally, in line with community, state, and federal laws on issues connected to discrimination, harassment, gender, and disability. Student codes of conduct aim to support educational goals and be in line with criminal and civil laws. Often times the courts have had the task of deciding if the codes achieve this end.

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