School Discipline: An Occasional Series on Developments in School Disciplinary Policies and Practices

Last Updated: February 24, 2011

This article appeared in the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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The long-running national conversation about school improvement is becoming more focused on wholesale restructuring of “failing” schools and districts, one-size-fits-all technical assistance mechanisms, and prescriptive programmatic solutions.

These largely punitive measures, especially in combination with other get-tough policies like “zero tolerance” for actual or perceived student misbehavior, can create incentives for schools to use disciplinary techniques such as suspensions, expulsions, and arrests in ways that lead students to drop out of school.

In places where a high percentage of students do not complete school — regardless of the causes — communities may need to engage in an internal audit of school practices and policies. Local changes in school practices along with more appropriate policy approaches can make an immediate difference in whether students leave school or remain through graduation.

This kind of local work can also begin to demonstrate practices and policy interventions that are more appropriate to rural schools than top-down policies generally are.  

Addressing school discipline, especially harsh punishments that push students out of school, has been identified as a major concern of many rural community residents. This occasional series highlights some of the most basic issues in the national conversation about school discipline.

Search and Seizure Law at Issue in a Several Schools

One of the key components of the school dropout crisis and the school-to-prison pipeline (through which many students get channeled into the juvenile or adult justice systems, often for very minor offences) is the increased presence of police officers in schools. In many cases this leads to greater law enforcement involvement in what have traditionally been exclusively school discipline matters, a high arrest rate especially for minor offenses, and a more negative school climate.

Discipline issues can become complicated because the rules that govern student interactions are different for police officers and school personnel. When a disciplinary action is challenged by a student or parent, courts must often sort out the role played by student, law enforcement officer, and school personnel. The following cases illustrate the competing interests around discipline and student rights in these situations.

Georgia — Officer’s Presence Does Not Give Student 4th Amendment Rights

In Georgia, a student suspected of being under the influence of drugs was summoned by a school resource officer (a law enforcement officer) to a room where an assistant principal was planning to search the student to “keep all parties safe.” During the search the administrator found a weapon. The student’s attorneys later sought to have the weapon excluded from evidence against the student based on the officer’s presence and the lack of probable cause for the search. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that since the officer did not direct the search or participate in it in any way, the student’s 4th Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure was not implicated. There was no drug charge, but the student’s conviction of having a weapon at school stood.

California — General Searches of Student Property by Drug Dogs Illegal

In California, an attorney-parent is forcing a school district to rewrite its policies around searches of property. Students in the La Canada school district were made to leave their belongings in a classroom where drug-sniffing dogs were brought in to search for illegal substances. There was no reasonable suspicion that any of the students had contraband even though reasonable suspicion is required as justification for such a search. The parent contends that separating the students from their belongings in this way was a form of kidnapping. The parent, a 22-year veteran federal public defender, has agreed to waive a lawsuit against the district if the district makes changes to bring its policies into compliance with search and seizure law. The school district has agreed.

Mississippi — Cell Phone Could be Searched after Confiscation

In Mississippi, a student who sued DeSoto County School District after he was expelled at age 12 for photos found on his cell phone received a mixed ruling from a federal district court. The student was caught in school reading a text message from his father on his cell phone. The cell phone policy of DeSoto District, like most in the country, prohibits the use of cell phones in school. The DeSoto policy allows the school to confiscate the phone and return it to a parent after a fine is paid.

In this case, however, school officials and police subsequently searched the phone and charged that some of the images on the phone indicated the student was involved in “gang activity.”

The student challenged both the search and the expulsion as a violation of his constitutional rights.

The federal court upheld the search of the phone as reasonable and justified because the student was using the phone in clear violation of school policy, which gave rise to reasonable suspicion the student may have been breaking other rules.

However, the court ruled the student’s expulsion for gang activity was arbitrary and found that the case should be heard before a jury to determine whether the pictures of the student dancing at home warranted the harsh punishment. To learn the outcome of this case, see “North Carolina District Clarifies Gang Policy in Settlement Agreement.”

Read more:

Decision in the Georgia, Ortiz v. The State case:

Local coverage of the California case:

Local coverage of the Mississippi case:

The opinion of the court in the Mississippi case:

Read more from the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

Related Categories: In Local News, Rural Policy Matters

Related Tags: Discipline