Parents rely on Maine's exceptional primary and secondary education systems to enlighten their children through a rigorous and all-encompassing series of individual assignments, lectures, group projects, and community service tasks. Upon graduation, students are well prepared for their goals of joining the workforce, building a business, or continuing their education at a college or university. While parents envision the day when their student children will fulfill their goals, each begins with fulfilling the requirements to obtain a diploma.
While navigating academic requirements, students must also adhere to an educational institution's guidelines that include numerous prohibited behaviors to assist in promoting an inclusive learning environment. Parents may be under the guise that misconduct is handled straightforwardly. However, that is no longer the case as schools shift to zero-tolerance disciplinary policies.
Infractions that used to be handled through stern discussions with school administration officials, extra assignments, and a phone call home are now increasingly grounds for the following exclusionary solutions:
- Out-of-school suspensions
- Relocation to an alternative education program (AEP)
Sanctions resulting in a separation from traditional studies can severely hinder a student's pathway toward success. Commonly, suspension, expulsions, and removal from school to an AEP causes adolescents to become less valued in the college application pool and as potential candidates for employment with well-known, high-paying employers. Moreover, harsh remedial measures can harm a student's progress outside of school when positive behavior-minded resolutions are needed.
Schools face immense pressure from the public and obligations tied to government funding programs that lead them to choose their reputation and subsidies over helping struggling students. If you're a parent, you may be unaware of how to help your child when allegations of even minor misconduct arise. Unfortunately, even honest students of good character are threatened with harsh consequences for uncorroborated misconduct, and the subsequent unfair treatment can categorize them as delinquents. Considering the vast implications, it's essential that you understand how school districts address misconduct.
Avoiding Alternative Education Placement in Maine
Although comprehensive knowledge regarding suspensions and expulsions exists, AEPs aren't as well-known. Within Maine's Title 20-A legislation, AEPs may be established pursuant to §4729 within each school administration as a means to rehabilitate "at-risk students." Maine's AEPs are mandated to align with the state's learning system guidelines under §6209, including various parameters to educate students on traditional curricula.
Talking over the teacher in class and causing disruption for the first time may not be a guaranteed way for your child to be sent to an AEP. However, it can establish a pattern of misbehavior the school will eventually substantiate as persistent. Nevertheless, AEPs are used for infractions involving, but not limited to:
- Habitual truancy
- Suspension longer than ten school days
- Possession of weapons or replicas
- Using narcotics, tobacco, or other prohibited substances on school grounds
- Threats of violence
AEPs are a helpful tool for some students to turn around their patterns of negative behavior and return to their regular school environment. Yet, the behavior that initiates a student's change in educational placement is often fortified during their time in an AEP. Additionally, since AEPs are an exclusionary resolution, the public may be unaware of potential issues within the programs. After all, state audits are conducted on a five-year basis.
Even though AEPs must follow guidelines backed by legislative directives carried out by the Maine Department of Education (DOE), they are still prone to problems. For example, individual AEPs may be at risk of:
- Inadequate teaching methods
- Outdated subject matter
- A lack of supportive resources for students
- The proliferation of in-house adverse behaviors
Placement in a Maine AEP can brand your child a perennial offender and open the door for unjust treatment in the programs and upon their return to the traditional learning environment. An AEP can not only inhibit their academic progress but establish a poor personal record that will plague them after they graduate. If your child faces a placement in an AEP as a form of corrective action, 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 Maine
Through Maine DOE regulations by the direction of the state legislature, each district school board must create and adopt a student code of conduct with input from educators, administrators, parents, students, and community stakeholders. Each district's code outlines the mission and vision of the education program to foster an atmosphere of sound learning. While the code includes numerous academic thresholds students must meet at a pre-determined rate, it also defines and details unacceptable student behavior and establishes the policies and procedures the school administration must follow to address violations.
Each school district must distribute the code of conduct to each student, typically upon matriculation or after passing each grade and entering the next. Students and their parents or guardians will typically be asked to sign a statement explaining they have received the code of conduct; therefore, ignorance is not a defense in disciplinary matters.
Instead, the code of conduct is a parent's first line of defense when their student children are threatened by harsh discipline. School districts in Maine cannot address misconduct allegations and levy sanctions indiscriminately. There must be a corresponding consequence to the alleged wrongdoings. Although each district may differ in what it outlines in its code of conduct, some universal prohibitions are:
- Academic misconduct (cheating, plagiarism, multiple submissions, unauthorized collaboration)
- Computer and school online network misuse
- General disruptions to the learning environment
- Title IX offenses (sexual assault, gender discrimination, harassment)
Although the code of conduct summarizes the processes of identifying and addressing misconduct through the investigative, hearing, and sanctioning stages, some violations may be managed on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, unintended consequences emerge when not only the alleged misconduct is reprimanded but the student's past record. In effect, disciplinary boards may levy excessive punishments due to bias against the student in question or a hidden conflict of interest.
Given the trials and tribulations of youth, there are regularly extenuating circumstances that lead students astray. From family emergencies to breaking peer bonds, personal challenges can end up unfairly punished at school. Relocating students away from their usual learning environment with familiar peers isn't an effective reform tactic to rehabilitate a student in need. However, a school may even seek to withdraw your child from the classroom under emergency measures that seem unwarranted.
Emergency Removals in Maine Schools
The Code of Maine Regulations 05-071 CMR 33 explains that school officials may remove students from the classroom or premises through emergency intervention. Accordingly, when "the behavior of a student presents a risk of injury or harm to the student or others," the administration may use "physical restraint and seclusion" to address the situation.
There are limitations on the nature of seclusion or physical restraints, and they must stop upon the termination of the emergency. School districts must have a procedure available by which parents may protest the use of physical restraint or seclusion on their child through a local complaint process. While a school must inform the parent or guardian of a child involved in an emergency removal, notification can sometimes take up to seven calendar days for a written report.
A secondary measure of a complaint is available to parents, however. Parents or guardians dissatisfied with the result of the local complaint process may file an objection with the Maine DOE, wherein the state authority will review the results of the local complaint process and may initiate its own investigation within 60 days. If a violation is found, the Maine DOE must develop a corrective action plan.
Process for AEP Placement in Maine
Whether a student was removed from school via an emergency intervention, subject to seclusion, or separated from studies through an out-of-school suspension, a student may not be removed for more than ten days during any school year. If one scenario leads to such sanctions or is the product of more than one instance, the school may seek to place them in an AEP.
Title 20-A, Part 2, Chapter 101, §1 states that one of two programs may be used. First, an AEP may provide at-risk students with curricula and assessments in a setting designed to effectively meet the student's academic, social, and relational needs. Secondly, schools may administer a plan of "alternative learning" that offers a combination of the following:
- Collaboration with home-bound, school, and social service agencies
- Flexible scheduling
- Focus on improving social, emotional, and relationship skills
- Mentoring adults
- Relevant alternative curricula
- Smaller class size
- Skilled teachers
School administrative units must develop a Personal Learning Plan (PLP) for every K-12 student enrolled in an alternative program. According to the Code of Maine Regulations 05-071 CMR 127, PLPs must include, but not be limited to, the following components:
- A description of the student's academic strengths and observable or measurable areas needing improvement.
- Annual educational goals aligned with the Maine DOE's system of Learning Results
- Short-term instructional objectives leading to annual educational goals
- Social and behavioral needs to be addressed for the student to remain in school
- Evidence that the student has achieved the purposes of the PLP
In situations where removal to an AEP is temporary on a disciplinary basis, the interim placement shall last 45 school days or until the PLP is fulfilled. Nevertheless, while the state has obligations to remand a student and provide them with legally required assessments, additional federal regulations govern the process.
Manifestation Determination Review
Students may not be suspended for longer than ten days or expelled for misconduct originating from a disability. Therefore, when the possibility of an AEP arises, school district officials will conduct a manifestation determination review (MDR), also known as a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) or a Section 504 Plan supported under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). An MDR or FBA determines whether a student's misconduct was triggered by the school's failure to implement the student's Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) or behavioral intervention plan (BIP).
The pupil evaluation team (PET), which includes the student, their parent or guardian, staff and faculty members familiar with the student, and the district's special education staff, will review the student's information and record to understand a possible connection between misconduct or an emergency with a disability or lack of proper IEP assistance. If your child has regular contact with a doctor, counselor, psychiatrist, or other healthcare professional, they should be present at the meeting. Although it's not an exhaustive list, some official disabilities that may permit the establishment of an IEP or BIP include:
- Chronic emotional distress
- Hearing impairment
- Learning disabilities
- Physical limitations
- Speech or language impairment
- Vision damage
The PET may determine that a disability caused the student's sanctioned misconduct or that the school district failed to properly carry out the student's IEP or BIP. In that case, the student may immediately return to school with a created or updated IEP, BIP, or alternative learning plan. However, if no disability is uncovered or the school's original procedures are adhered to, the student will have a change in placement to an AEP.
Challenging the MDR Process
Parents of students relocated to AEPs have an opportunity to fight back against unfair discipline. When parents seek to challenge an MDR, FBA, or any of PET's subsequent findings, a written complaint may be filed to the Commissioner of the Maine DOE. Parents, guardians, or their professional representatives can allege that the school failed to comply with various Maine regulations, special education laws, or IDEA, including, but not limited to, the identification, evaluation, placement, or provision of appropriate early intervention services.
Dispute resolutions may also be facilitated through informal mediation. However, if a complaint involves "systemic allegations," the complainant may not seek a solution through mediation.
Within ten business days of receipt of the complaint, the Commissioner will appoint a complaint investigator and issue an appointment letter to the parties and their representatives that will:
- Identify the complaint investigator
- Inform the school (respondent) of the complaint
- Advise the complainant of the Maine DOE's receipt of the complaint, investigation process, and right to submit additional information orally or in writing
- Notify both parties of the date, time, and place scheduled for a complaint investigation meeting
The Due Process Coordinator may recommend that the Commissioner dismiss a complaint if the allegations:
- Don't concern the education of disabled students
- Have been previously resolved when no continuing violation is identified
- It occurred more than one year before the complaint was received
- It happened more than two years before the date the complaint was obtained when the complainant requested compensation
Within 60 calendar days, the complaint investigator will investigate the allegations and send the complainant and the respondent a draft of the allegations to be investigated. They will compile relevant evidence from:
- The student and their parent or guardian
- School officials
- Applicable witnesses
- In-home visits
The complaint investigator will submit all data collected to the Maine Department of Education Due Process Office (DPO). A complaint investigation report (CIR) will be distributed to the parties by the Commissioner within 60 calendar days of the receipt of the complaint. Suppose a violation of regulations, laws, or the student's rights was unveiled. In that case, the Commissioner will issue an order in the CIR called a corrective action plan (CAP), directing the school to take appropriate corrective action within a specified period of time. Once the parties have received copies of the CIR from the Commissioner, the DPO will send a compliance documentation letter to the respondent, including stipulations for monitoring CAP compliance.
Protecting Your Child from a Maine AEP
Placement in an AEP can immensely impact a student's academic career and future opportunities. Considering the harsh repercussions from alternative placements, 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 placement in an AEP 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 administration immediately. Transcribe as much information as possible and keep a record of all contacts—written or verbal—with anyone involved in the situation.
- Speak with your child about the incident and help them to write down what they remember, including interactions with students, teachers, and staff.
- Call student defense advisor Joseph D. Lento to begin working with you on a strategy to help your child.
- Continue to gather relevant evidence, such as emails, photos, text messages, social media posts, and transcriptions.
- 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 AEP
When an AEP is a possible remedial course of action, it's customary for novice legal representatives to initiate their defense of students by moving forward with expensive lawsuits against the school district. Even though a formal suit is a possible means to keep your child out of an AEP, litigation is rarely necessary. Furthermore, court proceedings can make the situation much more stressful for the student and their parent or guardian.
Attorneys may also promote their record in arguing before judges or in front of juries to convince you to retain them. Still, school disciplinary meetings are not the same as a court of law. The skills used to arbitrate are much different than those required in discussions with school administration officials and PET representatives to facilitate a respectable solution for students stuck in limbo during the grievance process. Parents need a value proposition they can count on, not excessive, shock-and-awe tactics.
Over the years, Joseph D. Lento has developed beneficial relationships with countless members of schools' Office of General Counsel (OGC) in school districts across Maine and the U.S. This allows situations involving students facing a change in placement to be resolved before official proceedings begin with a school, PET, or the DPO. Even if schools attempt to follow through with burdensome disciplinary measures, a proven student defense attorney can give you peace of mind that your son or daughter will have the best outcome. A professional can help you make sense of school disciplinary policy to know what rights your child is afforded in disciplinary matters by ensuring administrators follow procedures correctly. He will guarantee you're aware of the timeframes for notices of hearings, the investigation process, and how to appeal, even if the situation goes all the way to the Commissioner.
Frequently, educational institutions with zero-tolerance policies overreact in their judgment to satisfy public opinion and retain government funding sources. With an experienced student defense advisor, you'll discover that effective representation can end the situation quickly—whether between the school administration, OGC, or DPO—with the student's best interests in mind.
Joseph D. Lento and his team at the Lento Law Firm have assisted Maine students in innumerable disciplinary circumstances. The confidence he gives clients allows them to stand up to their school's harsh punitive measures. 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.