We frequently receive panicked calls when students face a threat of serious school discipline. It is important for parents to understand their child’s legal rights before a school board or district can impose student discipline. Out-of-school sanctions can have an extremely adverse academic and social impact on students. Out-of-school suspensions and expulsions contribute to poor performance in school, higher drop-out rates, and increased misbehavior at school. The two most serious sanctions imposed on students are suspensions and expulsions.
What is the law in Connecticut on school suspensions?
In Connecticut, suspension is defined as exclusion from school privileges and transportation for no more than 10 days. School administrators can suspend students only if the conduct:
- Violates publicized policy of the local or regional board of education;
- Seriously disrupts the educational process; or
- Endangers persons or property
If the student’s conduct occurred on school grounds, then it needs to satisfy only one of the elements. If the student’s conduct occurred off-campus, then administrators can suspend students only if the misbehavior violates publicized policy and seriously disrupts the educational process.
What conduct qualifies as “violation of publicized policy?”
Local and regional boards of education are empowered to prescribe disciplinary rules and policies for the schools they oversee. Individual schools, in accordance with these policies, will typically list prohibited conduct in school handbooks. The school administration may suspend a student if he or she engages in such conduct. If your child is suspended under the publicized policy category, you should first consult the school handbook to determine whether his or her conduct violates any articulated school disciplinary rule. You will likely be able to make a stronger case for your child during suspension hearings if you can show that his or her conduct is not prohibited by the school.
There are three things to keep in mind in the process. First, Connecticut courts have held that school rules have to be clear and understandable so students and parents can reasonably understand what conduct is prohibited. Second, under the Connecticut statutes, school districts must inform parents and students at least annually of board policies related to student conduct, which they usually do through student handbooks. Finally, any school rule must have some rational relationship with its intended purpose. It is worth noting that this is not a difficult standard for the board or the school to meet since it does not have to show that the rule is the best approach, but only that there is some reasonable connection between the two.
What kind of behavior qualifies as “serious disruption of the educational process?”
According to guidelines issued by the Connecticut State Department of Education, a student’s conduct is not a serious disruption of the educational process unless it substantially interferes with the operation of a class, study hall, library, or any meeting involving students and school staff. The Department has noted that recurring or cumulative disruptions, even if not considered serious if taken separately, can amount to a serious disruption of the educational process. In making this determination, the Department suggests that administrators should consider the frequency, number, and severity of the offenses.
For conduct that occurs off school grounds, the Connecticut Supreme Court has held that there has to be a concrete relationship between the off-campus conduct and the school’s operation. Moreover, the General Assembly has set forth the following criteria that administrators may consider in determining whether a student’s conduct is a serious disruption:
- Whether the incident occurred close to a school;
- Whether other students or a gang were involved;
- Whether the conduct involved violence, threats of violence, or unlawful use of a weapon and whether there were injuries; and
- Whether the conduct involved the use of alcohol.
What kind of behavior qualifies as “endangerment of persons or property?”
The State Department of Education has defined “endangerment of persons or property” as conduct that exposes a student to an injury, risk, or a harmful situation. Under this definition, fighting, bullying, possession of firearms or controlled substances, or damage to personal or school property would satisfy this requirement.
What if my child has a school disciplinary history or has never been suspended?
Administrators may consider a student’s past disciplinary record when determining the length of a suspension or whether it is warranted in the first place. If your child has never previously been suspended or expelled, the school administrator has discretion under the law to waive or shorten the suspension. Instead, school officials may require the student to complete an administration-specified program, which parents would not have to pay for. Conversely, the school administration may also hand down a harsher suspension period if your child has a record of past suspension, expulsion, or removal from class.
What action is the state taking to minimize the academic impact of school suspensions?
Under the Connecticut statutes, an in-school suspension consists of exclusion from the regular classroom, but not from school altogether, for no more than 10 consecutive days. All suspensions must be in school unless:
- The student poses such a danger to persons or property or a serious disruption to the educational process that he or she should be out of school; or
- It is appropriate based on a student’s past disciplinary problems, specifically if the administration tried to address the student’s behavior through means other than suspension or expulsion
The Connecticut State Department of Education has also recommended that administrators should routinely consider the following mitigating factors before moving ahead with out- of-school suspensions:
Age, Grade, and Developmental Stage of Student: A younger child may not have the developmental maturity to understand that his or her conduct is inappropriate in a school setting. Alternative behavioral support programs educating him or her about this fact could be a more effective and less severe form of discipline.
The Student’s Reasons for Engaging in Misbehavior: If the student did not intend to harm someone or something, but was acting out of frustration, then an out-of-school suspension may be unwarranted because it would not effectively address the underlying problems. Examples of mitigating reasons include teasing by peers, family issues, etc.
The Student’s Past Disciplinary Problems and Likelihood of Recurrence: If the student does not have a disciplinary history, then an out-of-school suspension could be unnecessarily harsh. Instead, an in-school suspension or another behavioral support program could be equally as effective in punishing and deterring the student from engaging in such misconduct in the future. But if the student does have a history of disciplinary problems, an out-of-school suspension could be the next logical step in addressing the student’s behavior.
The Risk of Loss of Instruction: If a student is disengaging from class, an out- of-school suspension may compromise academic performance and actually exacerbate the student’s lack of interest in school.
Cultural Factors: A student could misbehave due to misunderstandings and different interpretations of events based on race, ethnicity, and linguistic differences.
Extent of Parental Support in Addressing Student’s Misbehavior: Administrators should consult with parents whenever a student is misbehaving in school. If there is not a history of such collaboration, then the school should involve parents in addressing a student’s misconduct before moving on to more serious measures.
If the school administration does proceed with an in-school suspension, the pupil can, depending on the administration’s preference, serve the suspension in the school or in a different school under the jurisdiction of the local or regional board of education.
What are my child’s legal rights before a suspension?
In Goss v. Lopez, the United States Supreme Court set forth a student’s procedural legal rights before he or she could be suspended. In that case, eight students had been suspended following an outbreak of student unrest without a hearing to determine the underlying facts resulting in the suspension. The Court noted that students facing suspension were entitled to notice of the reasons for the suspension and an informal hearing to tell their side of the story.
What are the school’s notice requirements? What can I do to prepare for the hearing?
The General Assembly, consistent with the decision in Goss, requires school officials to notify parents within twenty-four hours regarding the proposed suspension. Before the suspension, absent an emergency, the student is entitled to notice of the reasons for the suspension and an informal hearing in front of the administrator to explain his or her side of the story. Under the Connecticut statutes, an emergency exists if the student poses an unwarranted danger to a person or property or disruption to the educational process. If this is the case, then the hearing must be held as soon after the suspension as possible.
The hearing is the best opportunity for the student to persuade the school administration to dismiss or shorten the length of the suspension. To that end, parents may want to rely on the information mentioned above in helping their child craft a strategy during the give-and-take with the school administrator. For instance, students may point out that their conduct did not fall under the list of prohibited conduct warranting suspension or that t he misbehavior did not constitute a serious disruption of the educational process.
Even if the student’s misbehavior was inappropriate within a school setting, students may also invoke the mitigating factors identified by the State Department of Education to shorten the length of the suspension or receive, instead, an in-school suspension. The particular approach to contesting a suspension will depend on the facts and circumstances of the student’s case.
What are my child’s rights after the hearing?
If the administration authorizes a suspension after a hearing, parents cannot appeal the decision. But the school must give the student the opportunity to complete homework, including examinations, which he or she missed during the suspension period. Under the law, schools also cannot use out-of-school suspensions to discipline students more than ten times or fifty days during the school year, whichever comes first, without convening a more formal hearing. The limit for in-school suspensions is fifteen times or fifty days during the school year.
If the administration imposes an in-school suspension, parents should note that the Department of Education has issued guidelines on what they consider effective in-school suspension programs. First, the program should have a strong academic focus. To that end, the Department recommends that administrators group students together by age or grade and have the group supervised by a qualified individual. School officials should also keep the student to teacher ratio low and have certified teachers in essential areas such as math or reading to provide instruction to students. Along with providing students with an academically oriented program, administrators must allow students to receive and complete schoolwork from their regular classroom.
Second, the program should include a strong counseling component so students can get the necessary support to correct their behavior. Accordingly, guidance counselors, social workers, or psychologists should be available to students in the in-school suspension room. Quality programs would help the student manage his or her emotions, handle challenging situations more effectively, and develop positive relationships with both students and teachers.
 Alexandra Dufresne, Annemarie Hillman, et. al, Teaching Discipline: A Toolkit for Educators on Positive Alternatives to Out-of-School Suspensions, Connecticut Voices on Children 1 (2010).
 Conn. Gen. Stat § 10-233a(a).
 Id. § 10-233c(a).
 Crossen v. Fatsi, 309 F. Supp. 114 (D. Conn. 1970).
 Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-233e.
 CT State Dep’t of Educ., Guidelines for In-School and Out-of-School Suspensions, at 11.
 Packer v. Thomason Bd. of Educ., 246 Conn. 89, 110 (1998).
 Conn. Gen. Stat § 10-233c(a) (2010).
 CT State Dep’t of Educ., supra, at 10.
 Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-233c(b) (2010).
 Id. § 10-233c(e)
 Id. § 10-233c(g).
 CT State Dep’t of Educ., supra, at 11-12.
 Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-233c(g).
 Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 569 (1975).
 Id. at 596.
 Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-233c(a).
 Id. § 10-233c(d).
 CT State Dep’t of Educ., supra, at 17.