School Routines and Discipline

Dear Parents,

All school systems have discipline policies that are based on state and federal law and local school board regulations. The overall purpose of these policies is to keep our children safe and healthy in a respectful environment that allows them to concentrate on learning. This is good! But all parents need to understand these official rules and consequences because they can change a child’s life in a heartbeat.

Most school systems have the disciplinary rules and procedures (often called the code of student conduct) posted on the school system website. The code is also included in the student handbook that is available at most schools. The student handbook is usually sent home at the beginning of the school year for parent review, and parents are asked to sign off that they have seen it. The student handbook should also be available on the school website. Make sure that you have a chance to look it over every year!

The problems with school discipline policies mostly occur because the policies are “one size fits all” and individual circumstances and situations are not taken into consideration.  Zero-tolerance rules can cause ridiculous situations (for example, first graders accused of sexual harassment), and minor infractions and youthful mistakes are often handled in a formally legal way. Sometimes disciplinary procedures just escalate problems by backing students into a corner, and sometimes the consequences don’t make sense (for example, suspending students for truancy).

Principals used to give parents the opportunity to handle misbehavior within the family, but that is no longer true in most school systems. Law enforcement personnel are often involved for serious infractions (like assault, drugs and alcohol, and threats), and once officers are involved, police procedures supersede educational ones.

State laws often allow schools to punish students for behaviors that occur off school property, outside of school hours, and in situations unrelated to school. For example, a high school student who gets a ticket for underage possession of alcohol during the summer can have consequences when school reopens in the fall. A student who is charged with a serious infraction at school may lose his driver’s license.

But even though there are some problems with school discipline policy, it is still important to support it. Children have to learn that rules apply to them, and they have to learn it early on. Otherwise, little problems can turn into big ones very quickly.

Some children need to learn the hard way, and you have to let it happen. If children don’t learn to follow rules, respect authority, and respect the needs and rights of other people by the time they are nine or ten years old, they probably never will. If a child enters middle school with behavior problems, it is likely that they will have serious delinquent behaviors by high school.

It’s really important to know about the discipline policies in your school system because when discipline problems happen, they happen fast. So what should you do if your child runs up against the discipline policy in a BIG way?

If it’s a major offense that could require suspension, expulsion, or referral to law enforcement, you will have to respond immediately to a request to come to school. Ask what the conference is about and who will be there before you hang up the phone. Quickly call a family member or friend to meet you at the school. You need more than one pair of ears to keep things straight, and you need to stay calm and focused.

Take notes, and ask the school staff to explain anything you don’t understand. Ask for a written copy of the discipline policy for reference during the meeting, and make sure you understand which rule your child has broken. Make sure that your child has an opportunity to tell his/her side of the story.

Most school systems have an appeals procedure that you need to know about. Get that in writing too. Ask questions and know your options. Appeals procedures in school systems usually involve the superintendent and even the school board. Principals are often required to enforce the code of conduct to the letter, but the superintendent can consider mitigating factors at a central office hearing.

If you are upset or confused, ask for some time before making a decision. School decisions can be very important for your child’s future, and you need to think clearly.

Consult a lawyer if the school system is recommending expulsion or referral to law enforcement.

Protect your child’s future. You need to make sure that your child is fairly treated, but you also need to make sure that your child learns the lesson! School rules are generally the same rules that apply in the work place and in real life. Success in life depends on learning and following those rules.

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