By Rebecca Lightsey

The excitement and optimism that accompany a new school year can fade quickly when a disciplinary problem surfaces at school.

School discipline is a serious matter -- particularly when it means that a student will be removed from the regular classroom for a long period of time, or when the court becomes involved.

It is serious for the student, whose permanent school or court record may be affected; it is serious for the parent, who must make sure that behavior problems are not undermining their child’s capacity to learn and that the school is applying discipline appropriately and equitably; and serious for the school, which must maintain a safe learning environment while constantly evaluating the long-term impacts of its disciplinary policies.

Texas Appleseed has researched the impact of school discipline as part of a larger School-to-Prison Pipeline project and found that:

• Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs, where students are sent for an average of 30 to 40 days for misbehavior, have five times the dropout rate of mainstream schools.
• African-American students and special education students are significantly overrepresented in discretionary disciplinary referrals -- sometimes at rates three or four times their representation in the overall school population.
• Where a child attends school -- and not the nature of the offense -- is the greatest predictor of a student’s receiving a disciplinary referral.

Studies show that there are fewer disciplinary referrals and fewer incidents of violence in schools where parents are involved. Here are a few steps that parents can take to stay involved.
Make sure your child understands behavior expectations at school outlined in the Student Code of Conduct -- and what can happen if he or she breaks the rules. The state requires that schools discipline students for serious misbehavior (such as aggravated assault or bringing drugs or a weapon to school), however schools have discretion to discipline for other problem behaviors listed in the Student Code of Conduct.

Find out if your school practices “zero tolerance.” Serious misbehaviors cannot be tolerated if they undermine school safety and students’ ability to learn. However, some schools adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to any infraction. It is important that Student Codes of Conduct specify that intent, self-defense, and disciplinary history be considered in decisions to discipline a student. Parents can urge schools to adopt disciplinary policies that take these factors into account.
Remember that due process counts. You have a right to be informed in a timely manner when your child is suspended, expelled or referred to an alternative school --and you and your child must be given an opportunity to present your side at a school conference or disciplinary hearing. If you have been given a reasonable opportunity to participate, the school can hold a disciplinary hearing without you.

Neither behavior problems nor disciplinary action should derail a child’s education. Parents should work with the school and the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program to ensure that students assigned to alternative schools do not fall behind and consider dropping out.

Individual Education Plans (IEP) must be followed for special education students. Make sure that failure to follow an IEP did not cause or exacerbate your child’s behavior problems -- and that any alternative placement does not jeopardize your child’s education or emotional health.
Keep track of fines, community service and/or court dates if your child is ticketed or arrested at school. Failure to comply fully can result in additional fines or impact your child’s court record.

Throughout the disciplinary process, it is important to remain calm and open-minded and to communicate with the school. Ultimately, a child in trouble learns most from observing how the important adults in his or her life -- both at home and at school -- handle these kinds of challenges.
Lightsey is executive director of Texas Appleseed
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Texas Lone Star Forum. 9/08