Avoiding Disciplinary Placement in the District of Columbia High School System

Students enrolled in the District of Columbia's education system are presented with a multitude of challenges in preparation for graduation. Schools conduct their evaluations through demanding academic trials like individual assignments and standardized tests to group-based research projects and oral examinations. Devoted parents are more than willing to assist their student children in any of their academic, athletic, or social engagements while in school. They may understand how to help with advanced math study techniques, but parents don't often have the skills required to guide their child through the school disciplinary process when misconduct allegations arise.

Unfortunately, misconduct is no longer addressed with the student's best interests in mind. Gone are the days when rule infractions were addressed with support from a guidance counselor and a home call home from the school principal. Schools are progressively moving in the direction of instituting widespread zero-tolerance disciplinary policies. Consequently, even the most minor instance of misconduct may be punished through exclusionary measures such as:

  • Emergency interventions
  • Out-of-school suspensions
  • Expulsions
  • Placement in an Alternative Educational Setting (AES)

If you want your student child to succeed in their goals of being accepted to a prominent college or university program or beginning a career in one of the many businesses, non-profits, or civil service agencies in the District of Columbia, it all begins with a high school diploma. Any of the above sanctions can quickly derail a student's chances, and even investigations into alleged misconduct can hinder post-graduate performance. Institutions of higher education pay close attention to a candidate's character, as do human resources personnel. If students have struggled through a suspension, expulsion, or placement in an AES, it will impact the decision.

While parents trust the District of Columbia's exceptional school system to instruct their children, it can also be the reason their graduation goals are dashed. Schools in the nation's capital face growing pressure to maintain an immaculate public reputation and remain compliant with government funding programs. Therefore, they commonly place the institution's reputation above a student's rehabilitation. The ensuing unfair treatment they may experience can categorize them as troublemakers when, as a parent, you know that couldn't be further from the truth.

It's crucial that you understand how District of Columbia schools address misconduct. Parents must be prepared when misconduct allegations are clear and present, and the steps they should take to defend their student children.

Alternative Educational Settings in the District of Columbia

Although short and long-term separations from school, like suspensions and expulsions, are widely known, other means of punishment may not be as familiar. For example, schools may decide to send a student to an AES. Suspensions and expulsions are fairly straightforward insofar as they are short-term or long-term separations from school. However, alternative programs may not be as familiar to parents.

The District of Columbia Official Code (DCOC) §38-233 gives the District of Columbia State Board of Education the authority to establish alternative educational programs for students expelled from the District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) system. The District of Columbia Municipal Regulations (DCMR) asserts that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) will designate a school, or a specific program within a school, as an AES. The local education agency (LEA) will provide full-time equivalent instruction for students between the ages of 13 to 24.

Alternative programs serve students in their education instruction when they are identified with one or more at-risk qualifiers, according to eligibility criteria from DCMR 5-A7502. For example, an AES may be pursued to address the following student characteristics:

  • At least one year older than the expected age for the grade in which they are enrolled
  • Qualifies for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Experiencing homelessness
  • Currently involved with or under the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA)
  • Expelled from their prior school
  • History of being on short or long-term suspension at a prior school
  • Under court supervision

An AES must comply with the requirements of the DCMR regarding hours of instructional time, standardized tests, and break periods, among others. While alternative programs are beneficial for some students to adjust their undesirable behavior patterns and realign to their traditional school environment, not every student is rehabilitated. Frequently, the conduct that initiated a student's change in placement is reinforced during their time in an AES. Students may also be misjudged for their alleged actions and sent to an AES under false accusations. Moreover, since an AES is an exclusionary punishment, there may be issues lurking within the programs.

Even though an AES must follow guidelines backed by administrative code and carried out through official channels, they can still present problems. For instance, individual AES programs may be at risk of:

  • Insufficient teaching methods
  • Scarce student support resources
  • Outdated and misaligned curricula
  • Internal behavior or social issues with students or instructors

Parents may be concerned to hear that placement in an AES can happen for a first-time offense, even when schools address minor instances of misconduct. The District of Columbia has a five-tier system for identifying, codifying, and managing violations. Per DCMR 5-B2502, Tier I behaviors that are insubordinate or cause minor disruptions, like being impolite, using offensive language, and refusing to comply with faculty and staff may be used to remove a student from their normal learning environment. While Tier I misconduct may garner verbal reprimands and parent-teacher conferences, the school has the option to send a student to an AES.

While a student may be placed in an AES for a first-time offense—even for a short time—it can brand them a delinquent. The subsequent social isolation can raise the risk of the student being subject to unfair treatment from the school administration, teachers, and peers. Although there are steps guiding a student's return to their normal learning environment, there is no assurance for reintegration. Time in an AES may even cause growing personal challenges that impede future academic performance. When students need positive-minded behavioral assistance, a change in placement can worsen the situation that will plague their journey toward graduation. If your child faces an AES in the District of Columbia, 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 the District of Columbia

DCOC §38-236.03 details that LEAs, aligned with school personnel, students, and parents, must adopt school discipline policies to promote the safety and well-being of students and other school community members. Schools can have varying names for their collections of guidelines, but most are called codes of conduct. It will include all the information a parent needs about the school's systems and obligations, academic requirements for graduation, and prohibited student behavior at school and off-campus events. Each school must distribute the code of conduct to students upon enrollment or after advancing to the next grade level. Students and their parents or guardians are usually asked to sign a statement explaining they have received the code of conduct and understand its contents. Thus, ignorance is not a defense when a school levies misconduct allegations.

Regardless, the code of conduct is a parent's initial means of protection to help defend their children. Students face harsh repercussions in institutions with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, but schools cannot arbitrarily investigate claims and hand down sanctions. Each school district may differ in what it details in its code of conduct, but some common prohibitions are but are not limited to:

  • Academic misconduct (cheating, plagiarism, multiple submissions, unauthorized collaboration)
  • Computer and network misuse
  • Title IX offenses (sexual assault, gender discrimination, harassment)
  • Theft
  • Vandalism
  • Violent acts against students, teachers, or staff members
  • Weapons or replicas on the school premises

Although the code of conduct at any school in the District of Columbia summarizes the processes of addressing misconduct through the investigative, hearing, and sanctioning stages, some infractions may be managed on a case-by-case basis. Even though an individual approach to misconduct may have been a good thing in the past, the fact that disciplinary oversight is left to just a handful of school administration officials can mean that not only the alleged misconduct is punished, but the student's character.

School disciplinary boards may use an initial misconduct charge to substantiate a second. For example, two minor classroom disruptions may be all the administration needs to brand a student a repeat offender.

Considering the pressure that the growing pains of adolescence place on students, there are regularly extenuating circumstances that may be the cause of students acting out. Even when students are led astray by academic demands, the breaking of peer relationships, health issues, and others, they can end up unfairly punished. Moreover, relocating students away from their conventional learning environment isn't effective in rehabilitating a student in need.

Suspensions and Expulsions in District of Columbia Schools

The District of Columbia has the ability to suspend and expel students as one of the many means of corrective action. However, there are limitations. For instance, an out-of-school suspension may not be used as a response to unexcused tardiness or absence, per DCMR 5-B2504. Nevertheless, students suspended from District of Columbia schools may be relocated to a "special class" or "supervised program" within a student's home or at an AES to keep the student intact with their students.

Students who have been suspended or expelled will have access to an "Education Plan," as follows:

  1. If a student is suspended for fewer than 11 school days, the principal initiating the suspension must provide an Education Plan that meets the student's academic needs and allows the student to make up any class and homework assignments and exams without penalty.
  2. If a student is suspended for more than 11 school days or expelled, the student will be placed in an AES that will allow the student to earn credits toward grade advancement or graduation.

Before a school suspends or expels a student, however, there is a strict process that must be followed. If a school principal is pursuing a long-term suspension or expulsion as a means to punish misconduct, the findings supporting the move must be reported in writing to the student, their parent or guardian, and the DCPS Chancellor or their designated representative. DCMR 5-B2506 states that students have a right—but are not required to—have a representative or legal counsel.

Students will also have the following rights during hearings:

  • Provide and question any witnesses
  • Submit or challenge any evidence
  • Present or contest testimony

While there are processes to appeal determinations of responsibility and excessive sanctions, once a separation in studies is on the table, the school will assess the potential placement in an AES.

The District of Columbia's Alternative Educational Setting Placement Process

In the process of resolving misconduct through suspensions or expulsions, schools will seek to discern whether the violations were a result of a student's disability. The OSSE will support LEAs in conducting a manifestation determination review (MDR). An MDR—supported under Section 504 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—will assess the student's need for an individualized education plan (IEP) to remain aligned with their studies.

The MDR team, sometimes called an IEP team, will review the student's record to understand the connection between the misconduct and a disability. The assessment will also determine if the misconduct was due to the school's failure to implement the student's IEP. If your child has regular contact with a doctor, counselor, psychiatrist, or other healthcare professional, they should be present at the meeting. Some disabilities that may permit the establishment of an IEP include but are not limited to:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism
  • Chronic emotional distress
  • Hearing impairment
  • Learning disabilities
  • Physical limitations
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Vision damage

If the MDR team determines that a disability caused the student's sanctioned misconduct or that the school district failed to carry out the student's IEP properly, the student may immediately return to school with a created or updated IEP. If no disability is uncovered or the school's original procedures are adhered to, the student will be sent to an AES.

Challenging the MDR Process

Parents of students relocated to an AES have the opportunity to defend their children against an unfair change in placement. When parents seek to challenge an MDR, a written complaint may be filed with the OSSE. The agency's Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR) will facilitate one of two means of redress.

Mediation: Third-party mediators assist parents and LEAs work with each other to resolve the dispute over the student's IEP. The parties, not the mediator, will decide how the dispute is resolved—whether through a mutual agreement or a legally-binding contract will be developed and signed by both parties.

Due Process Complaints: Parents and LEAs may request an impartial due process hearing regarding a student's education services under District of Columbia law and federal regulations under IDEA. The ODR hearing officer must issue a legally binding decision within 45 days after the 30-day resolution period ends.

Protecting Your Child from District of Columbia Alternative Programs

Placement in an alternative program can immensely impact a student's academic career and future opportunities. Considering the harsh repercussions stemming from alternative programs, there is a significant possibility your student child will be classified as a perennial offender when attempting to enroll in college or secure a job after graduation. Parents have a greater chance of stopping their children from an AES if they remain engaged during the process.

When you become aware of a disciplinary issue, 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 AES

When placement in an AES is a possible remedial course of action, you need experienced professional help from a student defense advisor. While you may think an attorney will provide your child relief, consider the following situation.

Typically, lawyers will tout their experience in the courtroom, arguing cases before a judge and persuading a jury with evidence on behalf of their client. While that may sound like the perfect person to have to defend your child, it can often backfire. When the outcome of an expensive lawsuit is on the line, even the slightest misstep can derail the case.

Litigation is rarely necessary to keep a student out of an alternative program. Threatening big-ticket lawsuits mainly benefit the legal representative, not the student. Additionally, court proceedings can make the situation much more stressful for the student and their parent or guardian. Moreover, school disciplinary meetings are distinct from a court of law. The skills used to arbitrate are much different than those required in discussions with school administration officials. Parents need a professional they can count on to help their student children throughout the school grievance process and MDR proceedings, not unnecessary legal tactics.

During his years as a student defense advisor, Joseph D. Lento has developed beneficial relationships with members of schools' Office of General Counsel in school districts in the District of Columbia, and across the U.S. This concept indicates the following:

  • Parents will have peace of mind that a knowledgeable attorney will understand how the school will proceed with its disciplinary measures.
  • A student is kept out of the courtroom and away from unnecessary stress.
  • Parents don't have to rely on mediating through various OSSE procedures.
  • Students can remain intact with their traditional means of study.

Retaining a student defense advisor will guarantee you're aware of the timeframes for notices of hearings, the investigation process, and how to appeal, even if the situation leads to a legally binding due process hearing. Parents will discover that effective representation can end a disciplinary crisis quickly with the student's best interests in mind.

Joseph D. Lento and his team at the Lento Law Firm have assisted District of Columbia students in countless disciplinary circumstances. The confidence he gives clients allows them to stand up to their school's burdensome disciplinary boards. Protect your student child's rights with a team staffed with the knowledge necessary to support you through challenging situations. Contact the Lento Law Firm today by calling 888-535-3686 or visiting the online consultation form.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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