If you live in Oakland County, Michigan, you may have noticed the local ACLU making a big deal about students’ rights lately. On February 18, 2013 they screened a video called the War on Kids. Then on February 27, 2013, they partnered with the University of Detroit Mercy Law School’s Youth Justice Clinic to present a discussion on the School to Prison Pipeline.
So what’s the big deal? The problem is that student suspensions and expulsions are going up at alarming rates, and more often a school violation is turning criminal. Police are getting involved in incidents that a generation ago would have been handled through detentions or other in-school disciplinary procedures.
Federal and state “Zero Tolerance” policies mandate immediate expulsions for serious offenses like arson, criminal sexual conduct, or possession of a weapon. However, many schools have much broader “Zero Tolerance” policies that result in severe punishments for students who commit minor, non-violent offenses.
The ACLU and similar organizations are trying to replace these strict policies with positive, restorative discipline programs that focus on correcting the harm done, rather than punishing the wrongdoer. These programs are just beginning to gain popularity, but most districts still use the old methods.
It is important for students and their parents to know their rights around student discipline. If you are a student (or know one) in a public school you should know:
- You have a right to be protected. If you feel threatened by another student go to a teacher or administrator directly. Don’t try to handle the problem yourself. You could get in trouble along with the other student.
- You have a right to speak out. If you don’t agree with a school policy let your voice be heard in a non-disruptive way like a signing a petition or wearing a T-shirt.
- You have a right to know what you did wrong. The school must tell you why you are being disciplined.
- You have a right to tell your side of the story. You must be given an opportunity to defend yourself before being disciplined, even if there isn’t a formal hearing.
- You have a right to be silent. You don’t have to answer the questions of any administrator, teacher, or school resource officer. If you do it can be used against you later in both school and court.
- You have a right to contact your parents. Wait until they arrive before you answer any questions.
- You may have a right to a hearing. Before a school can suspend or expel a student it must provide him or her an opportunity to hear the evidence, and present evidence on his or her own behalf.
- You may have the right to a lawyer. If you have a right to a hearing, then you can represented by a lawyer at it. School lawyers know the limits of what schools can do and can fight for your rights and your school record.
There’s a lot more to know about this issue. Watch for future blogs for more details.