Schools and Rules — and How They Work
by Barbara A. Graham
Most of us would like to think of our schools as safe places that are isolated from society's problems.
But, that is not always the case. Instead, school leaders have had to face the harsh reality that serious situations sometimes do develop in schools. That is why the Pennsylvania Department of Education has created rules and procedures to protect the rights of everyone.
Imagine, for a moment, that your son or daughter, a regular education student attending public school, has been involved in a very serious situation at school, as defined by school policy. What happens next?
You will receive written notice from the principal that your child has been suspended from school, likely for ten consecutive school days. Within the first five days of that period, you and your child will be invited to an informal hearing with the principal. The principal will explain in detail why your child has been suspended, and your child may provide his or her side of the story. You will have the right to question any witnesses who are present, and to produce witnesses on your child's behalf. There is no right of review of the initial suspension.
At the conclusion of the informal meeting, the principal will decide whether to reduce or extend the period of the suspension, based on the available information and relevant School Board policies. If the principal wants to extend the suspension, he will request a formal hearing before the Board. A suspension beyond ten days is an expulsion and requires a formal hearing. You will receive notice of this hearing by certified mail, at least three days before the hearing. The hearing will normally be scheduled within fifteen school days of the notice letter. The notice will include the time and place of the hearing, a statement of the specific charges to be determined at the hearing, and identify potential witnesses who may testify at the hearing against your child. It will include a copy of the District policy relating to expulsion and the statements or affidavits, if any, of the potential witnesses. The notice will also advise that the hearing will be held in private, unless you or your child requests a public hearing.
The letter will inform you of your child's rights at the hearing to be represented by legal counsel, to request that witnesses appear in person and answer questions, to testify himself and to present witnesses on the student's own behalf.
You and the principal may agree to delay the hearing; often a student's attorney requests a continuance on behalf of the family. The hearing may also be delayed if the principal is awaiting receipt of laboratory reports from law enforcement officials, if the juvenile or criminal court system is concerned with the condition or best interests of a victim who would be presented as a witness against your child, or if you have invoked your child's right to an evaluation under special education law. After the initial suspension, your child usually will remain in school until the Board issues its official decision.
In our next newsletter, we will describe what you and your child can anticipate at the hearing before the Board, as well as discuss a possible alternative to the hearing.
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