Teenagers make mistakes. It is a part of growing up. Dealing with these mistakes is almost a rite of passage for a parent. However, when your child's school gets involved, it can take parenting out of your hands. Whether your son or daughter has a pattern of slip-ups or has simply made one major error, year and years of academic achievement may be put at risk. One mistake can unravel an entire lifetime of dreams and ambitions. One mistake can change your child's life — but it doesn't have to.
As the parent of a student facing high school discipline, the more you know about Mississippi's school disciplinary codes, the better chance you have at defending your child from life-altering punishment. When taking on an educational institution, the last thing you want is to be unprepared. To help set you up for a successful case, allow experienced disciplinary defense attorney Joseph D. Lento to walk you through the ins and outs of the Mississippi state code of conduct.
Exclusionary Discipline In Mississippi High Schools
Most student transgressions are small and handled with minor punishments. These happen to nearly every student at one point or another. Detention, missed social functions, or extra homework are not usually things that will limit your child's future or prevent them from going to college.
That is not the case when your student's discipline becomes exclusionary.
Suspension, Expulsion, and Alternative Placement are all lumped together under this umbrella in Mississippi's School Discipline Laws and Regulations. It goes without saying that these punishments are much more severe in nature. Exclusionary discipline will likely appear on your child's record, potentially dissuading colleges from offering their acceptance. Lack of higher education options could lead to less fulfilling career options down the road.
In addition, the social aspect of exclusion cannot be ignored. Any case of exclusionary discipline separates your child from their peers and friends. The psychological consequences of feeling outcast or misfit can be difficult for a teenager to handle without professional help.
As a parent, you will know that your high school child is a nuanced individual. All kids are. Stereotypes like popular kid, jock, brainiac, and trouble-maker make it seem like these students are easy to peg, but it doesn't align with reality. A seemingly perfect straight-A valedictorian student can find themselves in trouble just as easily as anyone else. They may even find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, facing punishment for an action they were not responsible for.
While suspension and expulsion remove your child from the environment, alternative placement takes the entire thing a step further — inserting the student into an unfamiliar place with the often unfair label of “troubled youth.” There is little room for nuance.
Disciplinary Alternative Education Placement In Mississippi
Alternative placement can seem at first glance to be an appealing option — if the student is misbehaving at one school, perhaps a new location and fresh faces will be the change necessary to spark improvement. For some students, that may even be true. However, this surface-level thinking ignores the deeper challenges that these alternative schools face.
One of the reasons for this is that alternative schools are almost always afterthoughts for Mississippi school districts. They exist out of necessity, not out of genuine desire to prepare their students for the future. The majority of the school district's focus is on the thousands of students who haven't been expelled from their original schools, not a small amount of misbehaved kids. Understandable or not, that is the reality — and it is one any parent would hope their child could avoid.
Another downside of alternative placement schools is the lack of a traditional high school diploma to recognize your student's hard work. Mississippi state only requires alternative placement schools to offer a High School Equivalency (HSE) Diploma, similar to a GED. While this type of degree is nothing to be ashamed of, it can immediately disqualify a student for any college or university beyond the community college level. At the very least, it is something that would be smart to avoid if possible.
There is also the issue of standards. Mississippi's school discipline regulations set guidelines for the operation and curriculum of alternative placement, such as:
- Students and parents should be given clear and consistent goals
- The curriculum should be culturally diverse and address different learning styles
- Campus should be closed, and all activities supervised
- Attendance requirements
- Counseling for students and parents
- Staff must be motivated and diverse
- Administrative support for the program
- Program should be reviewed annually
Most of these are good, admirable standards — in theory. The fact of the matter is that broad authority is given to individual districts to implement these guidelines as they see fit. There is no required uniformity throughout the state, and many of the standards listed above are not defined any further.
What does this mean? It means that if the school disciplinary council decides to send your child to an alternative school, you will have no way of knowing what type of school your child will be sent to until it is too late. The best time to fight disciplinary issues is the moment the accusations are made. Attorney Joseph D. Lento specializes in student discipline defense cases and will give your child the best chance to avoid alternative placement and other exclusionary discipline. Call 888-535-3686 or fill out the online form to discuss your student's case.
Who Qualifies for Alternative Placement?
Ultimately, assignment to alternative placement schools is done at the discretion of the school district. There are, however, some basic suggestions listed in the Mississippi disciplinary regulations.
- Students whose presence in the classroom is disruptive to the learning environment, or is detrimental to the other students and teachers
- Students who have previously been expelled or suspended for over ten days (this does not apply students who were expelled due to a felony or possession of a weapon)
- Students who are referred by order of a chancellor or a judge from the juvenile courts (as long as the school district superintendent consents)
- Students whose parents or legal guardians have specifically requested placement due to behavioral problems
Again, this is not a comprehensive list of reasons. Placement at an alternative school is done on a case-by-case basis, so it will come down to the opinions of the deciding school district members. Any student facing suspension or expulsion is also at risk for alternative placement.
A Closer Look at the Mississippi High School Code of Conduct
Like the other sections of Mississippi's School Discipline Laws and Regulations, the Code of Conduct forgoes many of the specifics and grants broad powers to individual school districts to create their own guidelines. Each district is required to review and make available their own code of conduct at the beginning of each year. In order to best assist with your child's defense, your lawyer will review your district's respective code. The following information is based on statutes in the general state code.
According to Mississippi Educational Code Section 37-7-301, school boards are able to discipline students for misconduct that occurs:
- In the school
- On school property
- On the road to and from school
- At any school-related activity or event
- At a place off-campus, or at a non-school-related activity, so long as the school's superintendent or principal determines that the misbehavior is detrimental to other students or teachers
High school students spend an enormous amount of their waking time at school or at school-related activities. Your child's actions during an extra-curricular event or an athletic match could be subject to oversight and discipline by the school board. In fact, the last guideline makes it clear that almost any mistake in a student's life could be grounds for school discipline; it does not have to involve school in any way. The only requirement is that the decision-makers feel that the student will present problems for the school's educational environment. It can be an opinion-based decision, which is why it is always best to have a lawyer in your corner.
Code of Conduct Violations
As soon as you retain an attorney, the first thing they will do is to review the code of conduct specific to your child's school district. These should include a list of rules a student could potentially violate, as well as the corresponding penalties for an infraction. It is important to ensure that the school district is following the rules it has set for itself. Regulatory errors are often the easiest way to dismiss a charge, and that can also be the case at a school board hearing. Even though it is not a criminal proceeding, the district must still abide by the codes they have written.
While Mississippi's state disciplinary code does not delve too deep into particular offenses, it does broadly cover a few types of student misbehavior and their suggested punishments.
Zero Tolerance Policy In Mississippi
Technically, Mississippi code does not make mention of any sort of “zero tolerance” policies. In practice, however, a few types of student transgressions prompt an automatic one-year expulsion. Guidance calls for these students to be expelled immediately without the option to enroll in any sort of alternative placement. These actions, according to § 37-11-18 are:
- Possession of a weapon
- Possession of a controlled substance
- Committing an act of violence on school property
It should be noted: the state does not further define these terms, leaving several important factors up to interpretation. What exactly is considered to be a weapon? How extreme must an act of violence be to justify automatic expulsion? Codes written by the school district may expound on these issues. At the very least, there seems to be some vagueness in how it might be applied on a case-by-case basis, which opens up the door for a potential appeal. If your child is facing accusations of any of these “zero tolerance” offenses, the smartest course of action is to contact a lawyer as soon as possible.
Chronic Disciplinary Issues
This refers to students who display consistently disruptive behavior. What constitutes a child being “disruptive?” The state's definition is “…a student that is so unruly, disruptive or abusive that it seriously interferes with” teacher-student communication, student learning, or the operation of a school-related activity. The types of behavior that may fall under this category include:
- Inappropriate language (profanity, threats, offensive remarks)
- Verbally attacking a teacher
- Deliberate acts of disobedience against teacher instruction
Within two weeks of a student's first display of disruptive behavior, the school must create a behavior modification plan per the guidelines issued in the district code of conduct. Once the plan is in place, the student will be considered “habitually disruptive” if the the behavior continues. After the child's third act of disruptive conduct during a school year, the student is subject to expulsion.
Bullying, Harassment, or Hazing
Bullying is a common issue for high school aged kids, so it makes sense that this section would be the one with the most detailed guidelines. Three separate state statutes call attention to bullying and harassment in some form.
Mississippi code § 37-11-67 defines bullying as a pattern of threatening communications or physical act that is motivated by a person's perceived characteristics. For the behavior to qualify as bullying or harassing, it must create a hostile environment and place a student or employee in reasonable fear of harm to themself or their property. It must also take place on school property, a school-sponsored function, or on a school bus.
Section 37-11-69 lays the groundwork that districts will use to craft their codes of conduct. Most of the section details the safeguards schools are required to install to prevent bullying. However, subsection 1 (g) is one that should be highlighted. This statute prohibits disciplinary measures against students who are guilty of misconduct that took place as a means of self-defense. An investigation is mandated for such matters. If your child is facing disciplinary actions that only occurred as a response to bullying, contact an attorney to ensure the school district takes proper measures before any punishment is assigned.
§ 97-3-105 of the code deals with hazing. This offense is seen frequently at the college level, but it can become a major problem for high school students as well. The statute states that a person is guilty of hazing if they purposefully engage in conduct that provides a substantial risk of injury during an organizational initiation.
What separates hazing from bullying and harassment — at least as far as Mississippi code is concerned — is that hazing is a criminal matter that carries a fine of up to $2,000 and six months in jail if convicted. Anyone who is considered an accessory to an alleged hazing incident can also be prosecuted. If convicted they will be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined up to $1,000.
A misdemeanor is bad, but the more consequential punishment might come from the school board. While it is not explicitly stated in the state's student disciplinary code, a misdemeanor conviction for a school-related offense would almost certainly mean an extended suspension at the very least. It would not necessarily cause the student to be expelled — only a felony conviction would initiate an automatic expulsion — but that outcome is certainly on the table. The whole thing is also entirely dependent on the language of the district-specific code of conduct and the unpredictable discretion of the school board members hearing the case.
If your child finds himself facing serious consequences for school-related misconduct, you need help sorting through it all. Reviewing the tedious legal jargon of state and district code is time consuming and unpleasant. Allow experienced student defense attorney Joseph D. Lento to navigate the complexities of Mississippi student discipline instead. He will work to ensure the most positive outcome possible for your child's case. Reach out online or by calling 888-535-3686.
What Steps Should Be Taken If Your Student Is Facing Discipline in Mississippi
It is time to take action as soon as you learn of the high school misconduct allegations facing your child. The more information you can gather from the school in the immediate aftermath of their decision, the better base of knowledge your lawyer has to work with when building your case.
After retaining an attorney, you will work together to determine the best strategy going forward. It is likely that the lawyer will want to speak with your child and get their account of the incident. Examine the district's code of conduct with a fine-toothed comb. They will work with you to collect evidence, such as a video recording of the alleged offense. They will help to find and prepare witnesses for the hearing. They will ask crucial questions: Was the alleged misbehavior the result of bullying? Was there any sort of misunderstanding? Do witnesses have contradicting accounts?
Exclusionary discipline — including advanced placement — is a massive punishment. Give your child a real chance by contacting legal counsel as early in the process as you can.
Due Process and Appealing High School Disciplinary Decisions
Mississippi students are granted due process rights for any exclusionary discipline (§ 37-9-71), such as:
- Suspension (for more than ten days)
- Dismissal (to alternative placement school)
The accused student has the right to a hearing with the district's school board. They have the right to legal counsel, where an expert attorney can present evidence, provide and cross-examine witnesses, and argue on the student's behalf. If you feel that your child does not deserve an exclusionary punishment, do not place your trust in the school board. They will likely not come to a favorable conclusion on their own. In these cases, the first instinct is to separate the misbehaving child from the rest. Your son or daughter needs an advocate in their corner. Simply put, they need a lawyer.
What if your teenager has already been disciplined? Perhaps you didn't take the initial hearing as seriously as you should have, and your student is now struggling to acclimate at an alternative placement school. Don't panic. All hope is not lost. There is still a chance to fix this, and your child needs you now more than ever.
It begins with an appeal. Appeals must be initiated by the student and a parent or legal guardian. This should be done as quickly as possible after the hearing to limit the amount of time your child spends away from school or in alternative placement. As with the first hearing, your child has the right to legal counsel. The appeal process is the time to submit any evidence or new information that may not have been presented at the initial hearing. Your lawyer will ensure you put your best foot forward as the facts of the misconduct are reevaluated.
Retain an Expert Student Defense Attorney
It bears repeating: exclusionary discipline is a huge negative for any high schooler. When compared to suspension and expulsion, alternative placement may seem like the preferable option. Do not be fooled. Alternative placement is not only about sending your child to different location for the day. It is about handcuffing their ability to learn and placing them in an environment that does not inspire a bright future.
Joseph D. Lento is a highly-experienced student defense attorney who prides himself on helping teens avoid alternative placement and other exclusionary discipline. He and his team at the Lento Law Firm have seen enough student discipline cases to know that it is nearly impossible to achieve a positive outcome without a legal representative on your side. To discuss the specifics of your high schooler's case, please call 888-535-3686 or contact us using our online form.