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Legal How-To: Challenging School Disciplinary Decisions

Parent taking child with a backpack to school.
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on September 05, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Most students are back to school by now and looking to get their academic year started off on the right foot. But some early stumbles could have students already facing disciplinary decisions and punishment at school. While sitting in a corner, writing repetitive sentences, and detention are still the norm in many schools, some are punishing kids in some pretty shocking ways.

You might be surprised to learn about the huge disparity in punishments depending on a child's race; that, until recently, Florida schoolchildren were fashioning the paddles used to spank them, or that your child might be cuffed and threatened with a taser and jailtime by a fake cop toting a real gun. These are all extreme examples of course, but there may be methods of punishment you disagree with, or feel your child shouldn't have been punished at all. Here's what you can do.

Permissible School Punishment

For the most part, schools operate, legally speaking, in loco parentis. That doesn't mean "like crazy parents -- instead, it means "in the place of a parent." Which, to many courts, means granting schools a lot of discretion in how they teach and discipline students. While that doctrine doesn't mean that students have no rights in school settings, it does mean those rights can be curtailed quite a bit.

Students do have some free speech rights on school grounds. (In a famous case regarding Vietnam protests, the Supreme Court noted that students do not "shed their constitutional rights ... at the schoolhouse gate.") But schools can ban disruptive or disobedient conduct or speech. Not without notice and a chance to appeal, however, as students retain some due process rights as well. When it comes to corporal punishment, the Court has held that paddling is not cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, but some states and school districts have outlawed the practice.

Perhaps the biggest area of recent change in school discipline and punishment have been so-called zero-tolerance policies aimed at drugs and weapons on campus. Schools are permitted to randomly drug test students and search them and school property in the name of school safety. Though some critics have said these policies go too far, courts have generally sided with schools on this issue.

Disputing School Discipline

With most school discipline, there will be an appeals process in place, by which a parent can talk to a school administrator or school district employee regarding the punishment. Colleges and universities may have their own honor codes or codes of student conduct, which will include appeal procedures for violations of student rules. These can be ways to challenge school discipline before it occurs.

If you disagree with a punishment that has already happened, you may need to go directly to the school district to change the policy, or to court if you believe a teacher or administrator has acted improperly. Before that, though, you may want to consult with an experienced education attorney about the law in your state, county, or school district.

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