Avoiding Disciplinary Placement in the Tennessee High School System

Parents always have big plans for their kids. You imagine your child going on to do great things: getting a college degree, landing a prestigious internship, and starting a fulfilling and prosperous career. You want your child to succeed at what they do, and you want them to be happy. Whatever ambitions you or your teenager might have about their future, those dreams usually start with earning a high school diploma. Having a strong, positive high school experience is of the utmost importance for a child's future growth and development.

Unfortunately, many things can prevent your kid from graduating high school. Teenagers make mistakes sometimes—what teenager hasn't? But when those mistakes get misconstrued as something more serious, or a good kid gets blamed for falling in with a bad crowd, the consequences can be severe. Students who didn't commit any misconduct can get lumped together with others who have, leading to a harsh and unjust punishment. You don't want your child's future to hinge on a mistake or miscommunication.

Why Kids Should Avoid Alternative Education Placement

When your kid gets accused of misbehaving or breaking the conduct rules at their Tennessee high school, the penalty can range in severity. They may simply have to do an extra assignment, or they could be expelled. The punishment for misconduct should always be in line with the severity of the transgression, but that's often not the case at Tennessee high schools. One option that many districts resort to is suspending or expelling students, forcing them to attend alternative education programs or learning education agencies (LEAs). This kind of solution keeps “troublesome” students out of sight and out of mind for school administrators.

These alternative education programs are supposed to be a positive step for kids accused of misconduct, but they often don't feel like it. Instead, teenagers feel isolated, harshly judged, and branded as a delinquent. They feel like their school has given up on them. Some students who join alternative education settings do just fine. But not all students adjust. Separating a high school student from their friends and teachers at their regular school and treating them like a criminal can cause them to take on an unhealthy, failure-marked identity.

Generally, you probably want to avoid having to send your child to an alternate high school. When your student is facing expulsion, however, the risk of attending an alternative school is significant. To help you better understand how Tennessee public high schools handle discipline and what the requirements are for alternative schools and LEAs, we created this guide. Although this resource can help you as you deal with your child's disciplinary issue at their school, the best approach is to hire a student defense attorney.

Student Codes of Conduct for Tennessee High Schools

Title 49 of the Tennessee Code concerns state laws regarding education. The State Board of Education and local school boards must follow these laws when formulating policies for student behavior, discipline, and alternative schools for suspended and expelled students. Schools are responsible for creating their own codes of conduct, which should state the behavior that is prohibited for students, and what the consequences are for committing such behavior. At the start of each new school year, you and your child should read the school code of conduct. This policy will be your first line of defense if you are facing unjust school discipline. If you hire a student discipline attorney, they will use the code of conduct to determine if the school is following its own rules about discipline.

Most schools in Tennessee prohibit the following serious behaviors:

  • Student assault
  • Teacher assault
  • Weapons at school
  • Bullying
  • Cyberbullying
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Theft
  • Vandalism
  • Computer misuse

The consequences for students who are accused of committing these actions could include the following:

  • Loss of classroom privileges
  • Signing a behavior contract
  • Detention
  • In-school suspension (ISS)
  • Exclusion from the regular classroom
  • Community service
  • Out-of-school suspension (OSS)
  • Removal to an alternative school
  • Expulsion

Although codes of conduct may differ slightly by school or school board, they must follow the Tennessee Code when it comes to removing students from the classroom, suspension, expulsion, and alternative education programs:

  • Tennessee Code 49-6-2804 addresses how and why teachers may remove students from their classrooms and states that students who are removed may be sent to an alternative school.
  • Tennessee Code 49-6-3401 lists grounds for student suspension and expulsion and states the authority the principal has when carrying out these penalties. It also states the right of students and parents to appeal a principal's decision to suspend a student when the suspension is set to last more than ten days.
  • Tennessee Code 49-6-3402 addresses the requirements for alternative schools for suspended or expelled students in Tennessee, including student attendance requirements. Maintaining and assessing alternative schools falls under the authority of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

What Is Alternative Education in Tennessee?

In Tennessee, local boards of education establish alternative schools for students who have been suspended or expelled from their regular schools. Alternative schools are either part of a local school, affiliated with a local school, or run by LEAs.

Goals and Requirements for Alternative Learning Environments in Tennessee

Alternative schools and LEAs must follow the same program of instruction and educational standards set by the Tennessee State Board of Education. Other requirements include:

  • Teachers must be licensed to teach in the state of Tennessee
  • Programs in separate facilities from regular schools must have a separate administrator
  • School days must be a minimum of six and a half hours
  • If a student in grades 7-12 has been suspended or expelled, they must be assigned to an alternative school or LEA. Attendance for these students is mandatory
  • Students must still take state-required assessments in alternative schools, and all coursework completed transfers over to the student's home school
  • Each student enrolled in an alternative school or LEA must have a formal transition plan created for them that aims to get them back to traditional school

Are There Limits for Sending Students to Alternate Schools in Tennessee?

Tennessee schools are only supposed to send students to an alternative program for serious offenses that have resulted in suspension or expulsion. It's important to know what the limits are for removing a student from their regular school so your defense attorney can help ensure your child isn't sent to an alternative school or LEA unjustly.

Students in Tennessee public schools are not allowed to be suspended until the administrator suspending them has informed the student of their misconduct and allowed them to give an explanation. For out-of-school suspensions or in-school suspensions that last more than one day, parents must be notified as well.

How to Appeal a Decision for Alternative Education Placement

If a student is suspended from a Tennessee public school, they must attend an alternative school or LEA. There is no opportunity for parents to appeal the decision unless the suspension their child is facing is ten days or more. Appeals must be filed within five days of receiving notice of the suspension, and either the parent, student, or anyone holding a teaching license who is employed by the school system can file an appeal.

A disciplinary hearing authority holds a hearing to discuss the appeal within ten days of the start of the suspension. The hearing authority can decide to:

  • Affirm the principal's decision to suspend the student and send them to an alternative school
  • Order the removal of the suspension unconditionally or with some conditions
  • Assign the student to an alternative education program or night school
  • Suspend the student for a specified period of time

Grounds for Suspension and Expulsion in Tennessee Public Schools

According to Part 49-6-3401 of the Tennessee Code, any principal, principal-teacher, or assistant principal of any public school may suspend a pupil for the following:

  • Willful and persistent violation of school rules
  • Immoral or disreputable conduct
  • Profane or vulgar language
  • Violence
  • Threatened violence against anyone attending or assigned to the school
  • Willful or malicious damage to real or personal property of another person attending or assigned to the school
  • Marking, defacing, or destroying school property
  • Possession of a pistol, gun, firearm, or another weapon on school property
  • Assaulting a principal, teacher, or school personnel with vulgar, obscene, or threatening language
  • Unlawful use or possession of drug
  • Initiating a physical attack on an individual student on school property or at a school activity
  • Making a threat or falsely reporting the use of a bomb, dynamite, chemical weapon, or another deadly explosive device on school property or at a school-sponsored event
  • Conduct prejudicial to the good order and discipline in a public school
  • Off-campus criminal behavior

Students can be expelled for one calendar year for the following:

  • Bringing to school or possessing on school property a firearm
  • Committing aggravated assault or an assault that results in bodily injury upon any teacher, principal, administrator, any LEA employee, or school resource officer
  • Unlawfully possessing any drug, including controlled substances, controlled substance analogs, or legend drugs, on school grounds or at school-sponsored events

The Downside of Alternative Education in Tennessee

Taking students out of their regular school environments and sending them to an entirely different program as a penalty for misconduct has its downsides. Alternative education programs are meant to help students who struggle with behavior issues, but these programs don't always work as intended.

Lower Quality of Education

One of the biggest criticisms of alternate high schools is the standard of education is lower than that of regular high schools. Teachers who work in alternative education programs must be licensed to teach in the state of Tennessee, and the programs undergo assessments to evaluate student progress and overall effectiveness. Despite these requirements, alternative programs still lag behind. After just two months in an alternate high school, students can fail to catch up to the rest of their classmates after returning to a regular high school.

Poor Student Attendance

Alternative education programs are fewer in number than regular high schools, meaning some students may have to travel further to attend one. If the commute is too long, it could discourage students from showing up for class, which adversely affects a student's academic performance.

Treating Students Like Criminals

Getting sent to an alternative education program is not a punishment for breaking the law. It's usually a consequence for typical, school-related misconduct such as classroom disruption, disorderly conduct, or truancy. Students feel like criminals when their schools exclude them from their regular educational environment for offenses that could be handled by the school administrators.

Racial Disparities in School Discipline

In 2019, the Tennessee newspaper The Tennessean carried out an investigation of racial bias in Nashville's public schools and found that Black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students. In the year the study was conducted, Black students accounted for 40% of the student body of Nashville public schools but accounted for 66% of all students suspended. Racially biased discipline can lead to more Black and non-white students ending up in alternative education programs.

Repeat Students

Once a student spends time in an alternative high school, it's highly likely they will be sent to one again. Simply going to an alternative setting once is enough to hinder a student's educational progress. Going multiple times throughout a high school career can have devastating consequences and even require a student to repeat a year.

High School Dropout Rates

After a student has been sent to an alternative education program, it is much more likely that they will drop out and fail to finish high school. The high dropout rate goes against the goals of the alternative programs, which aim to let students with disciplinary backgrounds finish school and earn their diploma. Factors like substandard education, separation from friends and regular teachers, and others previously mentioned contribute to students dropping out of alternative programs.

Higher Likelihood of Being in the Juvenile Justice System

When schools use exclusionary discipline on children, it can have a negative effect on every aspect of their lives. Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system compared to other students. Treating a student like a criminal can very well lead to that student becoming a criminal.

Attending an alternative education program, even if it's only for a semester, can hinder a child's future. It could slow down their academic progress and lead to more behavior problems rather than resolving the root issue. It can even lead to a student dropping out and failing to get their high school diploma. Being separated from friends, teachers, and any kind of support network at their regular schools can also take an emotional toll on teenagers.

If your child is facing removal to an alternative education setting, you should take active steps to prevent it. As a parent, you have a say in how your child's future plays out.

How to React If You Learn Your Child Is Having Disciplinary Problems at School

You want your kid to do well in school and avoid disciplinary problems as much as possible. As a parent, you can play a part in preventing your child's placement in an alternative education setting if you react quickly to any misconduct incidents involving your kid. As soon as you learn about a potential disciplinary issue with your child at their high school, take the following steps:

  1. Contact the school. Call the school and ask to speak with a counselor or administrator to get as many details about the alleged misconduct as possible. The sooner you call, the better.
  2. Find a student defense attorney. Once you have all the information regarding the misbehavior, call a student discipline legal specialist. You can start working on a defense strategy with them.
  3. Speak to your child. Ask your child about the incident or try to talk to them about problems they've been having at school. Listen to their side of the story and be patient and understanding. Have them write down as many details about the incident as they can remember.
  4. Collect evidence. If your child has outward signs of injury, take photos. Collect any other evidence you can by taking photos or collecting documents.
  5. Record contact with school officials. For every call or meeting you have with a school administrator or teacher, keep a log. Note the date, time, and topics discussed.
  6. Save written communications. Make a copy of every letter or written communication from the school; scan them and save digital copies as well. For digital communications like emails, save a digital copy and print out a hard copy.
  7. Refer to the code of conduct. Read through the sections about misconduct and student discipline in the school's code of conduct, so you are aware of what rules your child has supposedly broken.

One of the most important steps in this process is getting in touch with a student defense advisor. Contacting them as early as possible will make the process easier later on. They can advise you on how to collect evidence and stay organized as you prepare a defense strategy for your child.

Protect Your Child's Future

When your child is facing disciplinary action that could result in alternative education placement, you might think it's no big deal or that you can handle it alone. There's still a chance they can return to a regular public school after a session in an alternative school, right? Why bother preventing an alternative high school placement anyway? As noted above, taking a teenager out of their regular school environment and sending them to an alternative program can have long-lasting impacts on their education and overall development.

Many parents think they can handle their kids' disciplinary matters on their own as well. You're dealing with teachers and school administrators, not police officers—so why would you need a lawyer? In fact, the rules that Tennessee schools must follow concerning suspension, expulsion, and alternate high schools are state law. School boards must comply with these laws and ensure the schools in their jurisdictions have codes of conduct that apply as well. When dealing with your child's school, it helps to have someone on your side who understands the Tennessee Code of Education.

Rules about school discipline in Tennessee are nuanced and complex. Sorting them out and determining how they apply to your child's situation takes a legal expert. If you want to prevent your child's placement in alternative education, consider working with an experienced student defense attorney.

How a Student Discipline Attorney Can Help

A student defense legal expert can assist you as you deal with your child's school administrators. They can help you keep track of communications with the school and gather other evidence. They can coach you on how best to present your child's case during any meetings or hearings. An attorney can also show your student how to best conduct themselves during meetings with administrators. The school may not allow you to have an attorney present when you meet school officials but having an expert on your side is still an invaluable resource in this situation.

With an attorney helping you and your child through this process, you won't have to interpret the Tennessee Code of Education yourself. You can be sure your child's rights are protected when you have a lawyer on your side. A student discipline advisor can help you prevent your kid's school from abusing their discretionary authority and expelling your student, and sending them an alternative education program.

Contact an Expert Student Defense Attorney

Attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped students across Tennessee and the U.S. with high school disciplinary matters. He has the expertise necessary to support you and your child as you both go through this tough situation. With his help, you can stand up for your child's rights with their school. At the Lento Law Firm, we don't believe a simple mistake or misunderstanding should stand in the way of a child chasing their dreams.

Contact the Lento Law Firm by calling 888-535-3686 to protect your child's high school education.

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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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