Kids make mistakes. It's sort of like their job. Their brains are wired to try new things, to explore their world, to leap before they look. It's how they learn, but it can be messy. As a parent, you understand that. Good educators do as well. Unfortunately, every school district has its fair share of poor educators—teachers who punish students because it's all they know how to do and administrators who use harsh penalties where a warning or detention would serve.
You probably trust your South Carolina school, and you probably should, but ultimately, you're the parent. If you even suspect that your school district might be mistreating your child, you have the right and the responsibility to step in and demand fair treatment. That may sound daunting. It's never easy to navigate through educational red tape. There may be sensitive political issues at stake in your district. Teachers and administrators often have strong personalities, and they're not used to anyone challenging their authority. You don't have to go it alone, though. There's help out there if you need to fight.
Avoiding Alternative School
Educational freedom is important, but so too is discipline. These are the years when kids are learning their limits, and no one is suggesting high school should be a free-for-all. The problem comes when schools begin assigning punishments disproportionate to the nature of offenses.
The South Carolina Minimum Standards of Conduct does recommend serious penalties for serious offenses, penalties like suspension and expulsion. How often are these really necessary, though, relative to how much harm do they do when they are used?
The standards also include far fewer extreme punishments, such as reprimands, demerits, and detention. Good educators know how to use these effectively, so suspension and expulsion aren't necessary. In fact, the best educators know even more ways to provide creative disciplinary options, options that teach children without entirely disrupting their education—like assigning students mentors or putting them to work on community service projects. The truth is, there's almost never a reason to assign a kid a so-called “exclusionary sanction,” a sanction that interferes with their learning or, worse, stigmatizes them.
Originally, alternative school was supposed to be a “creative” disciplinary solution in South Carolina. The idea was to place students who were having trouble adapting to the education system into “alternative” environments more suited to their learning styles. In practice, however, these schools became convenient dumping grounds for kids when teachers and administrators couldn'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, and students who attend them wind up falling behind in their studies.
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 be a handful of kids who thrive in this environment, but the more likely outcome is that alternative school will stunt your child's development. Even worse, it may brand them as a “problem student” or “troublemaker,” labels that are hard to shake off.
Below, you'll find lots of resources on how to navigate the South Carolina 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 South Carolina 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 South Carolina
Every state is different in the importance it places on education and in the emphasis, it gives to discipline in educational settings. As a whole, South Carolina takes a fairly moderate approach to these subjects. The South Carolina Department of Education's stated mission is “to provide leadership and support so that all public education students graduate prepared for success.”
A commitment to “all publication education students” recognizes that disciplinary issues should not serve as a bar to public education. Meanwhile, the South Carolina General Assembly notes,
“a child who does not complete his education is greatly limited in obtaining employment, achieving his full potential, and becoming a productive member of society” (Article 13, Section 59-63-1300).
What does this language mean in practical terms? It means that
- In contrast to Texas and other states, South Carolina does not allow for emergency removal of students from their normal classrooms to alternative school.
- South Carolina has no statutory expulsion law. Each incident is handled as its own individual case.
- By law, school districts must afford students facing exclusionary discipline due process.
South Carolina Student Codes
State law further mandates how school districts should behave (though they can pass stricter rules). That is, administrators can't simply do as they see fit. Article 20 of the South Carolina education regulations sets up a three-tier system of discipline, with three separate categories of disciplinary infractions, each with its own set of punishment recommendations.
- Level I misconduct is referred to as “Behavioral Misconduct.” It involves activities that “disrupt” the classroom or the school. These can include things like:
- Forging notes or excuses
- Possession of electronic devices where prohibited
- Abusive language
- Behavioral misconduct is typically punished with sanctions like:
- Verbal reprimand: Often just a warning, though it can be more serious if it is recorded in your child's permanent file
- Detention: Usually enforced at a time not dedicated to learning, such as lunch, after school, or on the weekend
- Withdrawal of privileges: This might refer to extra-curricular activities such as participation in sports, music programs, or clubs and organizations.
- Level II misconduct is referred to as “Disruptive Conduct.” Usually, this type of conduct endangers the student or others at the school. The most serious types of level II misconduct sometimes involve criminal offenses. In addition, repeated Level I violations can warrant a Level II response. Typical behaviors included in the Level II category include:
- Use of an intoxicant
- Threats against others
- Unlawful assembly
- Abusive language to staff
- Disruptive conduct can be punished with temporary removal from class or with more severe sanctions, including:
- Alternative school: Temporary assignment to the school's alternative school program
- In-school suspension: Student is removed from the normal classroom and placed in an in-school detention area where they complete normal coursework
- Out-of-school suspension: Temporary removal from the school campus, up to ten days
- Transfer to another school: Enrollment in another school within the same district
- Expulsion: Dismissal from the district altogether
- Level III misconduct is referred to as “Criminal Conduct.” This highest level of offense usually refers to acts of violence or direct threats of violence. Examples include:
- Assault with the risk of severe injury
- Major vandalism
- Sexual offenses
- Possession of dangerous weapons
- Illegal use of technology
- Possession or distribution of controlled substances
- Level III sanctions usually start with out-of-school suspension but can also be punished with:
- Alternative school: Long-term placement in the alternative school
Finally, note that these disciplinary regulations apply not just to activities on school grounds but to conduct on buses and at school-sponsored activities.
In addition, keep in mind that the law allows school districts to enforce stricter standards if they choose. There are South Carolina districts that go against the recommendations of the Department of Education.
What Is Alternative School in South Carolina?
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 somehow offer innovative educational solutions. You can hear South Carolina straining to convey that message in its own description of its alternative schools:
These programs shall be designed to provide appropriate services to students who for behavioral or academic reasons are not benefiting from the regular school program or may be interfering with the learning of others.
The reality is, most alternative schools provide little in the way of actual education and can even be dangerous. One news story from just a few years ago describes an alternative school in the Charleston, S.C. school district as a place where “teachers suffer from physical and psychological injuries.” Such stories suggest that alternative schools in South Carolina are far more like old-time reform schools than educational institutions.
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. South Carolina Code of Laws statute 59-63-1300 describes only three reasons a child might be placed in alternative schools.
- Students may voluntarily request to be placed in alternative school. However, they must be able to document their specific need for “the attention and assistance beyond that of a traditional program.”
- Students may voluntarily agree to be placed in alternative school as the result of their habitual disruptive behavior. That is, they may recognize their own need for an “alternative” environment.
- Students may be placed in alternative school as an option to expulsion or suspension. In essence, students can be forced into one of these programs if the board of trustees believes they represent a serious disciplinary problem.
It is this last reason that deserves the most scrutiny. Obviously, if you believe your child would benefit from alternative school, you have the right to request that. However, if your child is being forced to attend such a program, you have the right to fight to prevent it.
In fact, state law places several specific restrictions on a school district's ability to send a student to alternative school involuntarily.
- Only the district board of trustees or a family court judge can require a student to attend an alternative school.
- A board of trustees can only assign a student to alternative school as an alternative to suspension or expulsion.
- School districts must maintain written disciplinary policies and procedures and may not send a child to alternative school without clear documentation that these policies and procedures have been followed.
- School districts must have due process procedures in place for anyone being sent to alternative school.
Of course, some districts follow the law; others don't. In any case, just as in a court of law, you have the right to defend your child from accusations and to present evidence as to why they shouldn't be sent to an alternative school. In addition, you have the right to be treated fairly throughout the determination process.
Due Process Protections
South Carolina doesn't identify specific due process protections for students who are facing mandatory alternative school placement. However, such placements require that students have been given either suspension or expulsion. Both of these disciplinary actions are subject to clear guidelines.
- Suspensions: School administrators must provide written notice of suspension to parents or legal guardians. This notice must include the specific reason for the suspension. In addition, administrators must set a time and date, within three days of the notification, for a conference to discuss the suspension with the parents. Finally, after the conference, parents may appeal the decision to the Board of Trustees.
- Only the Board of Trustees may expel a student, and they must hold a hearing before doing so. At the hearing, families have the right to legal counsel and to “all other legal rights,” including the right to question witnesses. Further, you have the right to appeal the Board's decision to a court of law.
Perhaps your most important due process right is the right to legal counsel. A suspension, an expulsion, and an assignment to alternative school are all serious sanctions that can have long-term effects on your child's academic future. If your child has been accused of misconduct, make sure you have the right representation, someone who has experience dealing with student conduct issues.
The Downsides of Alternative School in South Carolina
You might assume that an alternative school couldn't possibly do your child any lasting harm. It might be a hassle, 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 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 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.