Avoiding Disciplinary Placement in the Montana High School System

Parents are encouraged by Montana's outstanding K-12 and higher education programs to enlighten their children to strive for their goals. Whether students envision themselves as architects, doctors, lawyers, or teachers, each is based on graduating with a high school diploma. With well over a decade of assessments, exams, and tests, students try their hardest to avoid disrupting their path to academic success. However, mistakes can happen.

Students may fall prey to the growing pains of adolescence. The rigors of schoolwork, social bonds, and extracurricular activities can pressure goal-oriented students, which can sometimes be too much for them to handle. Dedicated parents are more than willing to lend a helping hand to their student children in need, but there are instances where their love and affection may fall short of providing relief.

Misconduct allegations are taken very seriously by educational institutions. Schools have an obligation to maintain a pristine public reputation and remain compliant with government funding mechanisms. While the ways in which schools handle misconduct allegations through the investigative, hearing, and sanctioning stages are in flux from changing cultural and political forces, institutions are increasingly adopting zero-tolerance disciplinary policies. Therefore, violations that were previously addressed with a phone call from the school principal to the parent are now common grounds for drastic corrective action such as:

  • Emergency interventions
  • Short-term and long-term suspensions
  • Seclusion procedures
  • Expulsions
  • Alternative placements in state programs

If students have experienced one of the above punitive measures, it will significantly affect their attempts to enroll in college, join a civil service program, or be hired by a reputable company upon graduation. Admissions boards and human resources personnel pay close attention to an applicant's character and any investigated allegations or sanctioned misconduct from a student's past. The unfair treatment they face may even continue as students can be categorized as delinquents for years to come.

Consequently, it couldn't be more important to understand how Montana school districts address misconduct. Parents must be prepared when misconduct allegations arise, so they know how to help their student children remain intact with their traditional studies.

Alternative Programs in Montana

It's no secret that schools can suspend or expel students for a litany of violations. Whether they are short-term or long-term separations, each ends with the student returning to the normal learning environment. However, when single instances of gross misconduct occur, or a pattern of recurrent misbehavior grows, school administration officials may seek other avenues of redress.

Many states have legislation charging school districts to create alternative education programs to rehabilitate at-risk students when they are removed from the traditional environment. Some of these are interim measures, and others are year-long. While each state legislature establishes laws governing how students are remanded to the programs, Montana is different.

The Montana Code Annotated (MCA) 20.5.202 states that nothing “prevents a school district from…providing educational services in an alternative setting to a student who has been expelled” from the student's regular school setting. The Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) contends the state's priorities are to empower school districts to determine what tools are best to measure student learning on an individual level, driving necessary supports and interventions. While a local approach may facilitate educational growth in many, for students threatened by a change in placement, vague policies can worsen a situation.

The Montana Healthcare Foundation (MTHCF) asserts that alternative education programs (AEPs) are defined as” ‘restructured' academic program[s] to serve at-risk students and operated within an accredited public school.” While there are currently 28 AEPs in Montana fitting the definition, there is no official centralized tracking system, and local school districts have complete discretion over how these operate. MCA 10.66.110 outlines that the state supports “alternative educational options.” State-approved educational programs are designed to provide a secondary education outside a traditional high school setting. However, they are not what parents may consider a second chance for their children.

For example, MTHCF states that Montana's idea for an alternative program falls under three categories:

  1. AEPs operated by accredited public schools
  2. State-approved educational programs outside of the traditional high school
  3. Day treatment, residential treatment, and juvenile justice system programs that operate educational programs

The Administrative Rules of Montana (ARM) provides several provisions that AEPs can utilize in accredited public schools. ARM 10.55.906 allows local school board trustees to waive specific graduation requirements based on individual student needs and to enable students to receive credit for coursework delivered through the following:

  • Adult education
  • Correspondence
  • Distance learning courses
  • Extension
  • Specially designed courses
  • Summer school
  • Work-study programs
  • Youth placement committee recommendations

Moreover, ARM 10.55.907 provides guidelines for schools allowing them to utilize online and other technology-delivered learning programs, relying heavily or exclusively on the Montana Digital Academy, a state-approved virtual public school located on the University of Montana campus.

Alternative programs provide students with educational or vocational instruction methods designed to address the characteristics of at-risk students. For example, alternative programs may be pursued to address the following:

  • Expelled students
  • Habitual truancy
  • Potential dropouts
  • Pregnant students
  • Recurrent behavioral issues
  • Students with disabilities
  • Substance abuse problems

While alternative programs are beneficial for some students to change their negative behavior patterns and return to their traditional school environment, not all receive rehabilitation. Frequently, the behavior that initiated a student's change in placement is reinforced during their time in an alternative program. Students may also be mischaracterized for their alleged misconduct and sent to an alternative program under false pretenses. Besides, since alternative programs are an exclusionary measure of corrective action, the public may be unaware of potential issues within the programs.

MTHCF statistics support that less than one-fifth of the state's school districts have established a formal AEP with OPI, and the majority are operated in rural communities of fewer than 5,000 residents. Therefore, the governance of Montana's AEPs is a framework of local maintenance and oversight. Each school district receives a particular amount of state funding per student and has the discretion to apply that funding toward an AEP if they choose. Due to administrative priorities and the scarcity of resources, smaller alternative programs are regularly opened but also shut down.

Alternative programs may even cause emergent personal challenges that inhibit further academic performance and lead to dire consequences down the road that will plague them upon graduation. 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 Montana

Much like the local approach to establishing alternative programs, each school district must create a code of conduct governing the learning environment. The code of conduct will include all the information a parent needs about the school's mission and vision, academic requirements for graduation, and prohibited student behavior. Each school district must distribute the code of conduct to each student, during matriculation or after advancing to the next grade. Students and their parents or guardians are typically asked to sign a statement explaining they have received the code of conduct. This means that ignorance is not a defense in student disciplinary matters.

The code of conduct is a parent's first defense when misconduct allegations arise. Although students face harsh repercussions in institutions with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, school districts cannot arbitrarily investigate claims and levy sanctions. Each school district may vary in what it details in its code of conduct, but some universal prohibitions that will garner sanction include, 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 Montana school 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. The unintended consequences of oversight left to a handful of school administration officials can mean that not only the alleged misconduct is punished, but the student's character.

Even if a student has a minor misconduct charge on their record, like disrupting the class by talking out of turn, it can cause them to suffer excessive punishments if the school establishes a pattern of recurrent misbehavior through an additional trivial infraction. Disciplinary boards may use an initial fault to substantiate a second, thus facilitating removal from school to an alternative program. Bias is a genuine concern for parents of students facing a school's punitive body. Moreover, conflicts of interest may be present when your student's child is investigated for misconduct. Schools have guidelines for disciplinary board members recusing themselves in such situations, but the fact that protecting the institution's reputation often comes first, it's also no guarantee.

Given the turbulence of adolescence, there are regularly extenuating circumstances that lead students off course from their academic goals. From family emergencies to social challenges, a student's obstacles in life can end up unfairly punished at school. Relocating students away from their typical learning environment isn't efficient in rehabilitating a student in need.

Suspensions and Expulsions in Montana Schools

MCA 20.5.202 provides school districts guidelines to suspend or expel students in certain circumstances. Students may be suspended from school for an initial period not to exceed ten school days. After an assessment is conducted by the school administration and they find that a student's immediate return to school would be detrimental to the health, welfare, or safety of themselves or others or would be disruptive to the educational process, a student may be suspended for one additional period not to exceed ten school days. Nevertheless, when either a district superintendent or a school principal is employed, only the superintendent or principal has the authority to suspend a student for a good cause.

School district-specific rules and regulations govern how a disciplinary board may proceed in the investigative, hearing, and sanctioning stages. While each may vary on the timelines dedicated to each step in the process, students will be given a chance to appeal the decision.

Emergency Removals in Montana Schools

All states allow law enforcement officers to take emergency custody of children without a court order if an immediate danger exists to the students or others. Montana also allows others to take a student into custody in an emergency situation.

MCA 41.3.301 states the following may remove a child without a court order if they believe the child is in immediate or apparent danger of harm:

School personnel may also intervene if the above persons aren't available during an on-campus emergency. MCA 10.16.3346 allows adverse treatment procedures when remanding a student via restraint or seclusion during an emergency intervention. Students under the care of special education personnel must be treated with positive behavioral interventions based on the results of a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) to address a student's needs.

Regardless, for other individuals without a defined FBA, the following actions may result in adverse treatment:

  • Posing a risk of physical harm to the student or others
  • Threatens significant damage to school property
  • Significantly disruptive or dangerous behaviors undeterred through positive behavioral interventions

Aversive treatment procedures must be designed to address the behavioral needs of an individual student and are approved by the school or school district's individualized education plan (IEP) team. They may not be used as punishment, for the convenience of faculty and staff, or as a substitute for positive behavioral interventions.

Montana's Alternative Program Placement Process

Given that Montana has no top-down process to place students in an alternative program, there are a myriad of avenues a school district can take to address misbehavior. For example, MCA 41.5.2005 states that a youth placement committee (YPC) will consider the student's placement in a community-based facility or program and prioritize Montana-based programs. The YPC will give all recommendations to a youth court judge (YCJ).

If in-state alternatives are inappropriate, the YPC may recommend an out-of-state placement. Suppose a YCJ rejects the committee's recommendations. In that case, it shall not order a placement or change of placement that results in a deficit in the annual allocation established for that school district under MCA 41.5.130 without approval from the YCJ. No alternative recommendations are necessary if the YPC recommends remanding the student to a correction facility.

MCA 41.5.343 states that students may also be placed in a youth assessment center (YAC). Students may be placed in a YAC only for the following reasons:

  • Student meets the requirements for placement in shelter care
  • The student has not committed an act that would be an adult felony offense
  • Structured education programming is necessary

Irrespective of what conduct rules were violated by a student, if an instance of restraint, seclusion, or suspension of longer than ten days occurs, a manifestation determination review (MDR) is required. 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. Students with disabilities are supported under Section 504 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and must have an IEP as means of access to a fair education.

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 formation 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

The IEP team 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. In that case, the student may immediately return to school with a created or updated IEP. Yet, if no disability is uncovered or the school's original procedures are adhered to, the student will continue with their suspension or expulsion and subsequent process for evaluation by the YPC or other means.

Challenging the MDR Process

Parents of students relocated to alternative programs have an opportunity to defend their children against unfair assessments. When parents seek to challenge an MDR, the findings resulting in the creation of a student's IEP, or recommendations given by the IEP team, a written complaint may be filed to OPI for a due process hearing.

When a parent files a due process complaint, a resolution meeting must be convened by representatives from the school district within 15 days. The resolution meeting provides the opportunity to resolve the dispute before an official hearing. If the school district has not resolved the complaint within 30 days of the request for a due process hearing, the resolution period ends, or it may be waived if both parties agree in writing or agree to use the mediation process.

During an official hearing, each party has the right to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses. The hearing officer will render the findings of facts and conclusions within 45 days after the end of the resolution period unless there is an extension. The hearing officer's decision is a legally-binding agreement unless the decision is appealed to state or federal court.

Protecting Your Child From Montana Alternative Programs

Whether your child is recommended to complete a distance learning course, a work-study program, or be relocated to an out-of-state AEP, an alternative program 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 your child is threatened by 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.

With the vague mechanisms the state uses to rehabilitate at-risk students, you need professional assistance to provide your student child relief. You don't want your child to be sent hundreds or even thousands of miles away to an AEP in a neighboring state where you don't have access to help them.

How Student Defense Advisor Joseph D. Lento Can Keep Your Child Out of an Alternative Program

When an alternative program through any of the aforementioned means is a possible course of action to punish a student, you need help from a proven, professional student defense advisor. While you may think an attorney will provide what your child needs to remain in school, consider the following situation.

Attorneys commonly flaunt their practice in the courtroom. While they may have experience arguing cases before a judge and persuading a jury, school disciplinary procedures are not the same as a court of law. Furthermore, litigation is rarely necessary to keep a student out of an alternative program.

During his years as aa student defense advisor, Joseph D. Lento has developed beneficial relationships with members of schools' Office of General Counsel in school districts across Montana and the United States. With Joseph D. Lento defending your student child, parents will have peace of mind that they have a knowledgeable education attorney that can keep their child in a traditional education setting.

Joseph D. Lento and his student defense team at the Lento Law Firm have assisted Montana 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.

Contact Us Today!

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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