Alaska's educational system seeks to teach the state's youth and provide them with the knowledge to achieve their goals. Whether students foresee themselves as academics, engineers, lawyers, or surgeons, each is centered on graduating and obtaining a high school diploma. Parents are aware that schools will challenge their student children with demanding academic tasks like individual assignments, group projects, and standardized tests. However, the nature of how their conduct is scrutinized in the classroom may be less well-known.
Students must abide by a school's policies and procedures governing behavior on campus and at all school-sponsored events. In their journey toward graduation, students will undoubtedly emphasize achieving good grades or participating in extracurricular activities. Still, their character is one of the most critical factors. Throughout the U.S., schools are increasingly instituting zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, and even the slightest misconduct allegation can hinder a student's progress before and after graduation.
Parents may believe that rule infractions are still handled with stern lectures from teachers and even a disappointing phone call home from the school principal. Unfortunately, that isn't the case anymore. School disciplinary action is much more severe today. Gone are the amicable negotiations with school officials as misconduct is frequently addressed through separations from the traditional learning environment like:
- Out-of-school suspensions
- Seclusion and restraint measures
- Emergency interventions
- Alternative placements
When students apply to institutions of higher education or submit job applications for promising career opportunities, admission board personnel and human resources departments will take the applicant's character assessment into account. Personality evaluations are a large part of enrolling in college and the onboarding process in corporate culture. While test scores, degrees, and other academic accomplishments carry weight for success after graduation, they can be overshadowed by disciplined misconduct.
Schools have an obligation to maintain a pristine public reputation and remain compliant with government funding mechanisms. Both factors drive institutions to act swiftly and sometimes harshly when dealing with misconduct allegations. The turbulence of adolescence may cause students to make mistakes because of peer pressure, overwhelming academic requirements, and the stress of achieving goals. At a time when students require positive-minded guidance, they are taken out of their familiar educational setting and forced to adapt to unconventional alternative placements as a disciplinary measure.
When your child is vulnerable to intense consequences because of disciplinary action, inequitable treatment can categorize them as troublemakers. Such labeling can hurt them for years to come. Considering the repercussions of a school's punitive measures, it's imperative that parents recognize how school districts manage misconduct.
Alternative Programs in Alaska
Parents are aware that Alaska schools have the ability to suspend and expel students for a catalog of rule infractions. There are clear procedures for administering short-term or long-term separations from studies; however, when single instances of gross misconduct occur or a pattern of recurrent misbehavior grows, school administration officials may seek other means.
Most states have pages of legislation pushing school districts and their boards to create alternative education programs to rehabilitate at-risk students when they are removed from the traditional environment. Some of these are interim measures that last as little as 45 days; others are year-long programs to help students gain a high school diploma. Some states—typically those with small populations—don't sustain statewide policies for establishing official alternative programs for disciplined students.
Alaska Statutes (AS) §14.45.150 contends that full-time students in grades nine through 12 may be considered for placement in an alternative education program. The state loosely defines these programs as any "public secondary school that provides non-traditional education." For example, an alternative education program may be:
- Alaska Military Youth Academy
- Charter schools
- Home school programs
- Public vocational schools
- Remedial systems
- Statewide correspondence schools
- Theme-based instruction programs
- Work-study programs
Under Alaska Administrative Code (AAC) Title 4, Article 6, §845, alternative placements will address students who present a "high risk of failing to graduate" because of the following:
- Below-proficient academic performance
- Credit deficiencies
- History of low attendance
- Present a possibility of dropping out
- Recurrent misbehavior
- Other barriers to graduation
Alaska's Department of Education & Early Development (DEED) explains that "identified student barriers" to graduation may include:
- Substance abuse
- Teen pregnancy
- Unaddressed health needs
- Untreated mental health issues
There are 12 alternative schools in the state that are part of the Alaska Alternative Schools Coalition (AASC), which works in tandem with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services' Division of Behavioral Health. The interdepartmental alliance seeks to provide essential health-enhancing services and programming for students. AASC develops trauma-engaged strategies tailored to meet the needs of each of its member schools supported by a common core of academic achievement.
While alternative programs are helpful for some students to modify their recurrent misbehavior or barriers to graduation and return to their usual school environment, not all receive the help they need. Frequently, the conduct that initiated a student's placement in an alternative program is reinforced. Alleged misconduct often misrepresents a student and can lead them to be sent to an alternative program under false pretenses. Moreover, considering alternative programs are an exclusionary punitive measure, the public may be unaware of potential issues within the programs.
Even though alternative programs have some guidance from the AASC and DEED, they can still harbor problems. For instance, individual alternative programs may be at risk of:
- A lack of student support resources
- Inadequate student transportation outlets
- Insufficient teaching method
- In-house behavioral or social issues
- Outdated curricula
Your student child is at risk of having further academic performance inhibited, leading to catastrophic consequences down the road. If your child faces a change in placement as a punishment, it's important that you contact student defense advisor Joseph D. Lento and his team at the Lento Law Firm immediately.
Student Codes of Conduct for School Discipline in Alaska
Alaska schools cannot arbitrarily punish students. There must be a clearly defined set of guidelines that every school or school district establishes to govern the everyday activities of the learning atmosphere. AS §14.33.110 states that schools must implement and maintain a school disciplinary and safety program. Such policies include community-based standards to guide school behavior developed by "students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and the community." AS §14.33.120 asserts that all schools and school districts receiving state funds must create and maintain an effective school disciplinary and safety program.
Disciplinary and safety codes in Alaska are similar to the regulations offered by schools nationwide that are commonly referred to as:
- Codes of conduct
- Honor codes
- Student handbooks
The code will include all the information a parent needs about the school's academic and behavioral expectations. Each school district must distribute the code to each student, typically upon enrollment or after progressing to the next grade. Students and their parents or guardians are usually requested to sign a statement explaining they have received the code and understand what the school expects. Therefore, ignorance is not a valid defense when schools levy misconduct allegations against students.
Yet, the code is a parent's first line of defense when a school addresses violations. Although students face harsh repercussions in institutions with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, schools cannot indiscriminately investigate claims and hand down sanctions. Each school district may vary in what it details in its code, but some universal prohibitions that will reap sanctions include, but are not limited to:
- Academic misconduct (cheating, plagiarism, multiple submissions, unauthorized collaboration)
- Computer and network misuse
- Illegal substance possession, distribution, or use
- Title IX offenses (sexual assault, gender discrimination, harassment)
- Violent acts against students, teachers, or staff members
- Weapons or replicas on the school premises
Although the disciplinary code at any Alaska school summarizes the processes of identifying and addressing misconduct through the investigative, hearing, and sanctioning stages, some infractions may be handled on a case-by-case basis. The unintended consequences of oversight left to just a few school administration officials can mean that not only the alleged misconduct is punished, but the student's character and past record.
Even if a student has a minor misconduct charge on their record—talking out of turn, unexcused absences, missed assignments—it can cause them to deal with excessive punishments if the school establishes a pattern of repeated misbehavior through additional infractions. Disciplinary boards may use initial rule violations to substantiate delinquency, thus facilitating placement in an alternative program.
Given the growing pains of childhood, there may very well be extenuating circumstances that lead students astray. From family crises to challenges in social surroundings, a student's obstacles in life can end up unjustly punished at school. Relocating students away from their typical learning environment isn't efficient in rehabilitating a student in need.
Suspensions and Expulsions in Alaska Schools
AS §14.30.045 provides that students may be suspended for the following causes:
- Behavior that is harmful to the welfare, safety, or morals of other students, volunteers, faculty, or staff members
- Continued willful disobedience or open and persistent defiance of reasonable school authority
- Students who are unable to reasonably benefit from schooling because of a physical or mental condition
- Students whose physical or mental conditions will threaten other school community members
- Students convicted of felonies outside of school that will present a threat to the welfare of other classroom peers
AAC Title 4, Article 7, §10 states that each school district will establish uniform discipline policies to adjudicate both:
- Routine discipline case procedures
- Chronic or serious discipline cases
Alaska education law is not perfectly clear on the limitations of suspension periods. According to AS §14.03.160, the threshold for suspensions seems to be no more than 30 school days. If students are punished further, it will be through expulsion for serious misconduct charges.
AS §14.30.047 explains that suspended students will be permitted to return to school when they are "obviously recovered." Otherwise, they may present to the governing school or district body a "statement in writing from a competent medical authority that the child is no longer afflicted with, or suffering from, the physical or mental condition to the extent that it is a cause for suspension."
Alaska's Alternative Program Placement Process
Although the ways in which an Alaska school handles separation from the traditional learning environment may be ambiguous, some procedures must be followed when changing a student's educational placement. For example, credentialed medical personnel must conduct assessments to determine the status of a physical or mental condition. Federal regulations also back this approach.
Irrespective of what conduct rules were violated by a student, if an instance of restraint, seclusion, or a long-term suspension is handed down, or the student is expelled, a manifestation determination review (MDR) is required. MDRs—also called Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs)—are supported under Section 504 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide students access to equal education. The school district's IEP team will convene with the student, their parent or guardian, staff, and faculty familiar with the student, and the district's special education staff to determine if a student's disability caused an instance of misconduct or a pattern of misbehavior. If your child has regular contact with a doctor, counselor, psychiatrist, or other healthcare professional, they should be present at the meeting.
DEED regulations state that the basic required components of IEPs include:
- The student's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance
- A statement of measurable benchmarks or short-term objectives designed to facilitate progress toward meeting a student's annual goals
- A description of how the student's progress will be measured and reported
- An explanation of the extent the student will not participate in everyday academic and extracurricular activities
- Required accommodations on state and district-wide assessments
- Consideration for Extended School Year services
- The projected date for the beginning of special services, their anticipated frequency, location, duration, and potential modifications
IEPs may be revisited annually to measure a student's progress toward pre-determined goals and must be reevaluated at least once every three years. Additionally, they will be considered for a return to the traditional school environment following the guidelines found in AS §14.30.047.
Some disabilities that may permit the formation of an IEP include but are not limited to:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Chronic emotional distress
- Hearing impairment
- Learning disabilities
- Physical limitations
- Speech or language impairment
- Vision damage
A school or district's IEP team may determine that a previously unknown disability caused the student's sanctioned misconduct. They may also find that the school failed to properly carry out the student's IEP. In that case, the student may immediately return to school if they were suspended with a created or updated IEP, with or without limitations on integration with the normal student body. Yet, if no disability is found or the school followed the student's IEP, the student will continue with their term of suspension or expulsion.
Challenging the MDR Process
IDEA ensures that parents are always a part of the MDR or IEP process. Therefore, parents of students relocated to alternative programs have an opportunity to defend their children against unfair assessments. When challenging an MDR, the findings resulting in the creation of a student's IEP, or recommendations given by the IEP team, there are four avenues of redress for a student's parents or guardians. According to DEED, they are as follows:
Mediation: A formal due process hearing does not need to be requested before mediation is available. An impartial mediator and the parties will convene to reach a mutually agreeable, legally binding resolution of the disagreement through an informal but structured meeting.
IEP Facilitation: The voluntary process may be used with the presence of a neutral third party to help facilitate communication to encourage the successful drafting of the student's IEP.
Administrative Complaints: Either party can file such a complaint with DEED. Parents may assert a "systemic violation" or violation of their child's rights when the IEP was created. A complaint investigator will examine the allegations and submit a written report within 60 days, including corrective actions to be taken if a violation is corroborated.
Due Process Hearings: Parents or school districts may file for a due process hearing with DEED and will be bound by law to adhere to the hearing officer's decision. AS §14.30.193 states that a due process complaint may probe any issue related to the "identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free, appropriate, public education to the child." Expedited hearings may be requested on the issues concerning student discipline. All hearings must occur within 12 months of the date that the school district provides the parent with written notice of the decision with which the parent disagrees. AAC Title 4, Article 52, §550 states due process hearings will proceed as follows:
- The hearing officer will hold a pre-hearing or settlement conference if the parent or school district requests.
- Each party must be provided at least ten days of notice before the hearing.
- The school district must conduct a resolution meeting within 15 days unless the parent and school district agree to waive the resolution meeting and pursue mediation.
- The hearing officer may proceed with the hearing if resolution or mediation is waived or fails within 30 days or within 15 days for an expedited due process hearing.
- A final written decision must be given within 45 days.
All due process hearing decisions may be appealed to Alaska superior courts under AS §44.62.560 within 30 days of the final order. AAC Title 4, Article 52, §580 requires students to remain in the educational placement until the end of the administrative or judicial proceeding."
Protecting Your Child from Alaska Alternative Programs
Whether your child is sent to an alternative program through a work-study program, vocational school, or youth military program, they will have their future threatened. Unconventional means to address behavioral problems are often counterintuitive and can immensely impact a student's academic career and future opportunities. Parents have a much better chance of stopping their children from going through alternative programs if they remain engaged during the process.
As a parent, when a disciplinary issue threatens your child, it's critical to do the following:
- Contact the school immediately. Write down as much information as possible and keep a record of all contacts.
- Speak with your child about the incident and assist them in writing down what they remember, including communications with students, teachers, and administration officials.
- Call student defense advisor Joseph D. Lento to begin working with you on a strategy to help your child.
- Continue to gather relevant evidence. This could be emails, photos, text messages, social media posts, and transcriptions from verbal contacts.
- Consult the school's code of conduct to understand how the disciplinary process may proceed.
How Student Defense Advisor Joseph D. Lento Can Keep Your Child Out of an Alternative Program
With the indefinite means by which Alaska attempts to rehabilitate at-risk students, parents will need professional assistance to provide their student children relief. While parents may believe that an attorney will provide what a student needs to remain in school, consider the following situation.
Attorneys frequently flaunt their courtroom experience. While they may have experience arguing cases before a judge and convincing a jury, school disciplinary procedures are not the same as a court of law. Besides, litigation is rarely necessary to keep a student out of an alternative program and is usually a disproportionate tactic.
During his years as an expert student defense advisor, Joseph D. Lento has developed beneficial relationships with members of schools' Office of General Counsel in school districts across Alaska and the United States. Parents will have peace of mind that they have a knowledgeable specialist capable of keeping keep their child in a traditional education setting.
Joseph D. Lento and his student defense team at the Lento Law Firm have assisted Alaska students in countless high-risk disciplinary circumstances. The confidence he gives clients allows them to stand up to their school's burdensome disciplinary boards and excessive means of punishment. Protect your student child's rights with a team present to support you through challenging situations. Contact the Lento Law Firm today by calling 888-535-3686 or visiting the online consultation form.