If you're a parent, you know: kids' brains are wired differently. Ultimately, that's a positive evolutionary development. Children need to try new things, explore their worlds, and leap before they look. That's how they learn. However, that little evolutionary advantage comes with a downside: it means children make their fair share of mistakes. Good educators understand this. It's why most schools rarely use exclusionary discipline—punishments like in-school suspension, expulsion, and alternative school assignment. Properly trained educators and administrators understand that, while students need a disciplinary structure, they also need the freedom to learn, explore, and make mistakes.
Unfortunately, every school district has its share of poor educators—teachers who punish students because it's all they know how to do or principals who issue harsh sanctions where a warning or detention might serve just as well. Inevitably, then, every year some students wind up facing discipline they don't deserve or discipline that's disproportionate to the nature of their offense.
You probably trust your Connecticut school, and you probably should. Educators are professionals: they're typically trained in the very best methods for getting through to kids. In the end, though, you're the parent, and only you know what's best for your child. If you even suspect that your school district might be mistreating them, you have the right—the responsibility—to demand change. That may sound a little daunting. School boards are famous for red tape; there may be sensitive political issues at play in your district; teachers and administrators never like it when you question their authority. You don't have to fight alone, though. There's help out there; you just have to know how to find it.
Avoiding Alternative School
Kids need discipline. No competent educator would suggest otherwise, nor would most parents. The issue is what kind of discipline kids need.
State law in Connecticut gives individual school districts the authority to set their own disciplinary structures. Of course, most schools use many of the traditional methods of punishing misbehavior, things like reprimands, detention, demerits, or loss of privileges. Particularly skilled educators can often come up with even better creative solutions to misbehavior, like assigning students mentors or putting them to work on community service projects. There's nothing wrong with any of these forms of discipline. None of them interfere with a child's access to education or the opportunity to grow and learn.
Exclusionary forms of discipline, on the other hand—punishments that take kids out of the classroom—almost always create more problems than they solve. Exclusionary discipline includes things like in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, expulsion, and alternative school. The truth is, almost no misconduct warrants such extreme measures.
Alternative schooling in Connecticut was initially envisioned as a “creative” disciplinary solution. The idea was to place students who were having trouble adapting to the education system into “alternative” environments more suited to their learning styles. Theoretically, kids attending alternative school would be given their very best chance at success, with innovative lessons taught by specialized educators.
In practice, these schools have too often become convenient dumping grounds for kids when teachers and administrators can't be bothered to find more effective solutions. Almost from their inception, they developed a negative reputation. The best teachers refuse to teach in them, students who attend them wind up falling further and further behind in their studies, and the result is a cycle of failure.
The bottom line is, you don't want your district to send your child to alternative school, especially without just cause. There may be some good schools in the state, and there may even be a handful of kids who thrive in such an environment. The more likely outcome, however, is that alternative school will stunt your child's development. Worse, assignment to an alternative school can brand them as a “problem student” or “troublemaker,” labels that can be impossible to shake.
This guide offers information on how to navigate the Connecticut disciplinary system and especially how to handle the threat of alternative school. You should know, though, that your very best resource, should your child be facing a serious charge of misconduct, is to seek help. Premier school discipline attorney Joseph D. Lento has experience defending students in Connecticut and across the country. At the Law Offices of Joseph D. Lento, we specialize in student conduct issues. We know how to negotiate when it's necessary; we know how to fight when it's necessary. To find out more about how we can help, call 888-555-3686, or use our automated online form.
Education in Connecticut
Every state is different in terms of the importance it places on education and the emphasis it gives to discipline in educational settings. As a whole, Connecticut takes a fairly moderate approach to these subjects. State law defines the educational interests of the state as two-fold:
- To provide every child with an “equal opportunity to receive a suitable program of educational experiences”
- “To reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation”
Such language reflects a demonstrated interest in reducing the use of exclusionary discipline in the state since such disciplinary approaches tend to inhibit the ability of students to receive “a suitable program of educational experiences” and exacerbate “racial, ethnic, and economic isolation.”
In fact, in recent years, the Board of Education has undertaken initiatives to both study and respond to disproportionate disciplinary responses in Connecticut schools based on race, ethnicity, and economic status.
Nevertheless, the state continues to use exclusionary discipline. In some cases, removing a child from school is actually mandatory, a policy at odds with other states, such as South Carolina.
More importantly, not every school takes the state's initiatives as seriously as it should. Students in Connecticut schools are mistreated under district-wide disciplinary policies every day. If you feel your child is being treated unfairly, contact the Law Offices of Joseph D. Lento immediately to find out how we can help.
Connecticut Student Codes
There are no specific state guidelines for how high schools in Connecticut should make and enforce rules. Instead, under Title 10, Chapter 163, Section 10-4a, the state cedes that authority to individual school boards.
As you might expect, every school board sets its own rules for behavior in its district, and typically these rules differ by individual school. You can find guidance about your child's school policies by looking at the Student Code of Conduct, which is usually located in the Student Handbook.
The East Hampton School District offers a good general example, though, of how schools throughout the state tend to organize their disciplinary policies.
The East Hampton High School (EHHS) Student Handbook divides misconduct into roughly three categories. First, the school maintains a rigid attendance policy. In addition, the handbook includes sections on both “academic honesty” and general “rules and regulations.”
As the EHHS Student Handbook notes, Connecticut state law requires every registered student to be in attendance “each day that school is in session.” To help enforce this law, the district uses an automated call system to contact parents.
The handbook goes on to outline a number of specific rules governing how it handles absences.
- A student's first nine absences can be excused for any reason, provided the student's parents contact the school about the absence.
- Absences beyond the first nine may only be excused for illness, a family member's death, religious holidays, mandated court appearances, lack of transportation, or “extraordinary educational opportunities.”
- Any student with sixteen unexcused absences in a course receives no credit for that course.
- Cutting class is subject to disciplinary penalties, and students who miss work while cutting class cannot make up that work.
As with other EHHS disciplinary policies, the school does provide due process to students who violate the attendance rules. EHHS has an attendance appeals committee that judges reasons for absences. A qualified, experienced student discipline attorney will know how to talk to this committee and convince it to reconsider any sanctions the school has assigned your child.
A second important area of discipline in all Connecticut school districts is academic integrity. The EHHS Student Handbook outlines three specific types of misconduct: cheating, plagiarism, and stealing/ deceiving/ defrauding.
- Cheating: This refers to the use of unauthorized materials to complete coursework. This can include anything from looking at another student's paper during an exam to Googling answers during a quiz.
- Plagiarism: This involves claiming credit for another person's work or ideas. Plagiarism doesn't just apply to text. Students can plagiarize images, videos, music, and even computer code.
- Stealing/ deceiving/ defrauding: This is a sort of catchall category for any misconduct not covered under cheating and plagiarism. Lying to get out of taking a quiz qualifies. So does altering grades in the teacher's gradebook when they're not looking.
EHHS uses a three-tiered system for punishing academic offenses.
- First offenses can be punished with anything from a warning to detention to makeup assignments for reduced credit.
- Second offenses can be punished with detention and/ or a grade of zero on the assignment in question.
- Further offenses can sometimes garner an out-of-school suspension.
General Rules and Regulations
Finally, all districts maintain general policies about student behavior. There are EHHS rules governing
- Hall passes
- Dress codes
- Fire alarms
- Smoking and vaping
- Electronic devices
- Public displays of affection
- Sexual harassment
- Hate crimes
- Property damage
Each of these strictures comes with a minimum and maximum penalty. So, for example, dress code violations can garner anything from detention to out-of-school suspension. Many of these violations can result in expulsion or assignment to alternative school, including smoking, possessing a weapon on school grounds, sexual harassment, and making threats.
What is Alternative School in Connecticut?
The alternative school movement actually began in the 1960s as a creative option to traditional public education. The goal of such institutions was to re-imagine just what education could be, and this produced a wide range of experiments, such as schools where members of the community served as instructors, schools where students taught other students, and multicultural schools emphasizing ethnicity and culture as central to the curriculum.
Today, however, the term “Alternative School” is primarily used to refer to “last chance” programs, educational environments to which “troubled” students are often “sentenced” as a last chance before they are expelled. State boards of education chose the name “alternative” to suggest that these programs provide innovative educational solutions. In fact, the Connecticut Department of Education offers a set of guiding principles that are meant to govern all alternative school programs. For example, such schools must offer
- A learning experience comparable to what a student would receive in a normal classroom
- A whole-student approach that emphasizes personal, social, and emotional development in addition to intellectual development
- Educational approaches that engage parents, family, and the larger community
The reality is, many alternative schools simply don't measure up to these requirements. Studies have found that many of these programs are underfunded. In addition, Connecticut has no system for evaluating enrollment, attendance, or education outcomes of alternative schools. As a result, many devolve into glorified babysitting services, where teachers don't teach, and students don't learn. Worse still, some of these schools can turn violent.
The Process for Assigning Students to Alternative Schools
You should know: high schools cannot just arbitrarily assign your child to an alternative school. If they're trying to do so, they're breaking the law. Districts typically only assign alternative school to students who have been expelled and thus need alternative educational opportunities.
Thus, in order to send your child to alternative school, the district must first expel them from their high school, and there are legal limits on expulsion. The Department of Education's Office of Legal Affairs notes that in addition to the statutory requirement to expel students who bring dangerous firearms to campus, districts may only expel students who violate high school policies, and only when they have made clear violations of those policies may result in expulsion. In short, your child must have broken a rule that specifically carries a penalty of expulsion and been officially expelled before they can be sent to alternative school.
Further, no district may expel a student or send them to alternative school without first providing students and their families the right to defend themselves at a formal hearing.
Due Process Protections
In addition to providing a formal hearing in cases of expulsion, school districts are also required to afford accused students and their families certain due process rights. These include
- Right to notice of the charges
- Right to legal representation
- Right to be heard
- Right to be presumed innocent
- Right to review evidence
- Right to a recording of proceedings
Of course, not every district follows the law as it should. If your district is trying to expel your child or send them to alternative school without just cause and without providing them with due process protections, contact the Law Offices of Joseph D. Lento immediately.
The Downsides of Alternative School in Connecticut
You might assume that alternative school couldn't possibly do your child any lasting harm. It might be a hassle, and it might even interfere with their educational progress, but how bad could it really be?
In fact, studies show that even a small amount of time spent in an alternative school setting can have long-term negative consequences.
- Substandard Quality of Education: According to one investigation, nearly half of all alternative schools have graduation rates below fifty percent, compared to a six percent rate at all other public high schools. The best teachers fight to avoid being assigned to alternative schools, which means these programs are typically staffed by burned-out unqualified staff. Even a short time in an alternative school can leave a child so far behind academically that they simply can't re-enter the general student population. Over the long term, a student in an alternative school isn't prepared to go to college or start a good job when they graduate.
- Attendance Issues: It isn't just the low quality of teachers that inhibits learning at alternative schools. These programs typically have serious attendance issues. Often, in fact, districts don't provide adequate transportation to and from these schools, so many students have no options but to miss school. Of course, frequent absences can have a serious detrimental effect on learning.
- Criminalizing School Misconduct: In simplest terms, forced alternative school works the same way a reform school program works. Indeed, alternative schools might even be compared to prisons in the sense that students are sent there with no other choice. As a result, these students are often stigmatized by other students, teachers, and in general, by people in the community. Indeed, studies have consistently shown that exclusionary discipline, like alternative schools, causes students to see themselves as criminals.
- Discipline is Unfair: One of the biggest problems with alternative schools, as with all disciplinary programs and indeed the entire US criminal justice system, is that minorities are almost always treated unfairly. A study by the US Department of Justice, for instance, found that “African-American students and those with educational disabilities were disproportionately more likely to be removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons.”
- Repeat Assignments to Alternative School: As recently as 2009, the Intercultural Developmental Research Association (IDRA) found that one in three alternative school students had previous experience in the alternative school program.
- High Dropout Rates: Students in alternative schools are more likely to drop out and less likely to graduate high school.
- Contact With the Juvenile Justice System: Exclusionary discipline, including assignment to alternative schools, is known in educational circles as the “criminal justice pipeline.” Why? Because students subjected to such discipline are far more likely to wind up in trouble with the juvenile justice system and far more likely to face criminal charges in later life.
The facts are clear: The alternative school program is a broken system, if it ever had any merit to begin with. If your child's school is trying to force them to attend an alternative school, you should fight to stop them. The Law Offices of Joseph D. Lento can help.
What to Do
So, what do you do if your child has been accused of some form of misconduct and is facing suspension, expulsion, or alternative school?
- First, take the situation seriously. It is no exaggeration to say that your child's future—as a student, as a person—is at stake. Exclusionary discipline leads to negative consequences, including the lack of an education, limited career possibilities, and even involvement with the criminal justice system. Taking it seriously means finding out all you can about the charges, educating yourself about your specific district's procedures for handling such cases, and finding the best legal representation you can.
- While it may sound as if it runs counter to the previous point, don't overreact to the situation. Arguing with teachers, administrators, and other district personnel or making threats won't help the situation and could make it significantly worse. Remain calm. There's nothing wrong with fighting for your child's future, but let your attorney handle the arguments.
- Finally, find the right attorney. The situation is serious; it's also complex. A school board hearing isn't the same as a court of law. The rules are different, the decision-makers are different, and the outcomes are different. A local or family attorney just won't do in these cases. You need someone on your side who works specifically in the field of school discipline defense and who has experience representing students and their families.
Joseph D. Lento Can Help
Joseph D. Lento built his career defending student rights. He's helped literally hundreds of families challenge their school districts' decisions. Joseph D. Lento understands how school districts operate. He's used to dealing with teachers and administrators and to representing clients in misconduct hearings. Joseph D. Lento has dealt with every kind of case, from simple assault to sexual misconduct. Whatever your child has been charged with, Joseph D. Lento is on your side. He knows how unfairly school districts often treat their students, and he stands ready and willing to fight for your rights.
If your child is facing alternative school or worse, contact Joseph D. Lento today to find out what he can do for you. Call 888-555-3686 or use our automated online form.