Avoiding High School Disciplinary Placement in the Virginia High School System

Parents expect a lot for their kids; they can't help but dream big. You may see your child becoming successful someday as a doctor, lawyer, scientist, or author. You've imagined them heading off to college to earn a degree as soon as they finish high school, then embarking on their careers. For many kids, that path to success starts in high school, and having a good experience during these four formative years can mean a world of difference. Doing well in high school and earning a diploma are likely the first steps you've imagined your child taking into the professional world.

Just as high school can have a positive impact on a child's life, a bad high school experience can also have a disastrous impact. Several things can get in the way of your kid earning their diploma. Teenagers make mistakes, and sometimes they end up in trouble. If a child gets caught up in a bad situation that's not entirely of their own making, though, it doesn't seem fair for them to suffer the consequences—and those consequences can be harsh. It's not uncommon for schools to blame students for misconduct that they didn't commit. In some Virginia school districts, a misunderstanding or miscommunication can threaten your child's future.

Avoid Alternative Education Program Placement

When your teenager gets accused of misbehaving at their Virginia high school, the penalty could be minor, like having to complete an extra assignment. The penalty could be much more severe, however, like suspension or expulsion. The punishment for misconduct at high schools should match the severity of the child's actions—but they often don't. One option many Virginia high schools, unfortunately, turn to is sending students to alternative education programs. Although these programs exist for students who have trouble learning in a traditional school environment, they're often used as a disciplinary measure for students that have misbehaved. Virginia schools that don't know how or don't want to deal with students accused of misconduct use these programs as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind solution.

An alternative education program is supposed to be a positive thing for your child, but it can end up feeling like an unjustly harsh punishment or branding your child as a delinquent. For some students, alternative high school is fine. But for others, it can have a negative impact on their education and cause them to take on a failure-marked, unhealthy identity. Alternative education programs don't always have the same standards as regular high schools and may lack the same support services or propagate a negative student culture.

Ultimately, you don't want your child unjustly sent to an alternative education program in Virginia if it will interfere with their education so much. However, when your child gets in trouble at their school and faces disciplinary action, getting sent to an alternative high school is a very real possibility. To help you better understand how discipline works at Virginia public high schools and what it means to be sent to an alternative education program, we've compiled this resource. If your child is in trouble, however, the best way to ensure they end up at the high school where they'll have the most success is to consult an expert disciplinary defense attorney.

Student defense attorney-advisor Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have helped high school and college students across the country defend themselves in disciplinary matters with their schools. If your child is dealing with a disciplinary proceeding at their high school, don't risk an alternative education program. Let your child keep their dreams alive and contact a student defense expert.

Student Codes of Conduct for School Discipline in Virginia

Virginia high schools are not allowed to make up their own rules. They must conform to guidelines set by the school district or the county, which must follow the laws in the Code of Virginia, Title 22.1. This title of the Code of Virginia provides all the laws pertaining to public education in the commonwealth, including discipline at schools and the provision and operation of alternative education programs.

Schools may issue their own codes of conduct that both students and parents are expected to read. Each school or district may differ slightly, but the following behaviors are generally not permitted at school:

  • Assaulting another student
  • Assaulting a teacher
  • Bringing weapons to school
  • Bullying
  • Cyberbullying
  • Using illegal drugs or alcohol at school
  • Theft
  • Vandalism
  • Computer or technology misuse

The penalties for committing one of these prohibited behaviors are typically one or more of the following:

  • Loss of classroom privileges
  • Signing a behavior contract
  • Detention
  • Extra schoolwork
  • In-school suspension (ISS)
  • Exclusion from the classroom
  • Community service
  • Out-of-school suspension (OSS)
  • Expulsion

At Richmond Public Schools, the Student Code of Responsible Ethics (SCORE) splits student behaviors into categories. It differentiates between behaviors that impede academic progress or school operations, behaviors that create negative relationships and safety concerns, and behaviors that endanger self or others and lists responses and penalties for each level of misbehavior.

Grounds for Expulsion in Virginia

Title 22.1, Article 3 covers discipline and stipulates for what reasons students may be suspended or expelled. Students can be expelled if they:

  • Have a weapon or firearm at school or a school-sponsored activity
  • Bring controlled substances, imitation controlled substances, or marijuana to school or a school-sponsored activity

A disciplinary committee for the school can also recommend expulsion for a student to the school board if they have violated a law or school regulation. The decision to expel must be based on the following factors:

  • The seriousness of the violation
  • The danger posed to the school community
  • The student's disciplinary history
  • The appropriateness and availability of alternative education programs
  • The student's age and grade level
  • The results of assessments related to mental health, substance abuse, or special education
  • Attendance and academic records

What Are Alternative Education Programs in Virginia?

Title 22.1-276.01 defines alternative education programs as “any education program designed to offer instruction to students for whom the regular program of instruction may be inappropriate.” This definition is broad, giving school administrators more discretion when deciding if a student's regular high school is an “inappropriate” program for them.

A school board can send a student to an alternative education program in Virginia if the student:

  • Gets expelled
  • Gets suspended for one semester
  • Gets two or more long-term suspensions within one school year
  • Has been released from a juvenile correction center
  • Is found guilty or not innocent of a crime that could have injured others
  • Is charged with an offense related to weapons, alcohol or drugs, or intentional injury

Before a student gets placed in an alternative education program, they and their parent can attend a hearing on the issue to argue against placement. A child can be assigned to an alternative program for up to one school year or 180 teaching days. If they are to stay longer, there must be an assessment of their progress and whether the program is still the most appropriate environment for the student.

Alternative Education Program Requirements

Alternative education programs established in Virginia must meet certain requirements and have specific goals if they are to receive funding.

The goal of alternative education programs is to reduce:

  • Crime and violence by students
  • The student dropout rate
  • The number of young people sent to juvenile correction centers
  • Recidivism

These programs also aim to promote:

  • Academic achievement levels
  • The rehabilitative success of participating students
  • Admission to institutions of higher education
  • Improved staff retention rates

Alternative education programs must also make concrete plans for how to transition enrolled students back into the school division's regular programs. These programs are supposed to have a curriculum for intensive and accelerated instruction, an emphasis on building self-esteem and social responsibility, and a low pupil/teacher ratio for more interaction.

By reading the goals and requirements for alternative education programs in Virginia, it may not seem like such a bad thing if your child gets sent to one. The reality is that these programs are not always effective in helping rehabilitate students and letting them re-enter regular school programs.

The Downsides of Alternative Education Programs in Virginia

Removing students from regular school settings and sending them to a separate program because of disciplinary issues can have negative impacts on a child's education and development. Alternative education programs are a controversial matter because many critics argue they don't accomplish what they're supposed to.

Lower Quality of Education

A big issue with alternative education programs for expelled or suspended students is that the quality of education is substandard compared to the students' regular schools. Teachers at alternative education programs must be certified, and there must be a low pupil/teacher ratio in classrooms. Despite these requirements and regular program evaluations, educational quality for students remains low. Students can be sent to an alternative education program for an entire school year. This time frame can slow students' progress and make it impossible for them to catch up with their classmates after they return to regular schools.

Issues with Attendance

There are fewer alternative education programs in Virginia than there are traditional schools, so transport options are more limited. If a student gets sent to an alternative education program, they may end up having a long commute, which could discourage them from attending altogether.

Criminalizing School Misconduct

Students don't have to break the law to be sent to alternative education programs, and the discipline they receive from regular schools is almost entirely up to the discretion of teachers and administrators. It's possible that students can be removed from their classrooms and sent to an alternative program for typical, school-related misbehavior like classroom disruption, disorderly conduct, or truancy. By excluding students from their regular educational environments for offenses that can be handled in-house, schools make students feel like criminals for typical school-related misbehavior.

Unfair Discipline

Several studies have been carried out about school discipline and race in Virginia and across the country. A ProPublica report looking at the 2015-16 school year found that Black and Hispanic students are, on average, 2.1 times less likely to be selected for gifted programs and take AP courses than white students; they're also 3.7 times more likely to be suspended than white students. These numbers indicate that it's non-white students who are more likely to end up in alternative education programs in Virginia.

Repeat Sessions

Once a student attends an alternative education program once, they're more likely to attend again. Having to spend time in an alternative program once is enough to hinder a student's progress. Going multiple times in one year may make a student fall so far behind that they have to repeat that year.

High Dropout Rates

Students that get placed in alternative education programs for disciplinary issues are more likely to drop out and not finish high school. Dropout rates start to increase around ninth grade, as that's the year the most students tend to be suspended or expelled and thus sent to an alternative program.

Likelihood to Experience the Juvenile Justice System

Exclusionary discipline at the high school level can have a negative impact on children. Students who get suspended or expelled from school are more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system compared to other students.

Spending time in an alternative education program for disciplinary reasons, even if it's only one semester, can have a tremendous effect on a child's future. Their academic progress can slow down, it can lead to more behavior problems, and the student may eventually drop out and fail to get their high school diploma. Getting sent to an alternative program also cuts students off from their friends and teachers, which takes a toll on emotional health and further impacts academic performance. Assigning a student to an alternative education program is meant to address discipline issues, but it can lead to negative outcomes for kids.

If your child is facing removal to an alternative educational setting because of a behavior-related issue, you should take steps to prevent it from happening. Although it may seem like a good idea on paper, taking a student out of their regular school environment has far more impact on their future than you might think.

How to Respond to Your Child's Disciplinary Problem at Their Virginia School

As a parent, you should aim to stay involved in your child's schooling, including disciplinary matters. If you stay up to date on what's happening and take a proactive approach with your kid's school, it may prevent them from being sent to an alternative education program in Virginia.

As soon as you learn that your child may be having disciplinary issues at school, you should take the following steps:

  1. Call the school and get as much information as possible. Ask about the incident in question: where, how, when. Take detailed notes.
  2. Contact a student defense attorney-advisor once you have the details about the incident. Then you and the advisor can start working on a strategy.
  3. Speak to your child and ask if everything is alright with them at school. Ask if they've had trouble with teachers or other students and ask them to write down everything they can remember about the incident in question.
  4. Take photos of your child if they have visible signs of physical injury. Try to collect any further evidence.
  5. Log all of your contacts with school officials, including phone calls, meetings, emails, or letters. Write the date, time, and length of the conversation if applicable.
  6. Save every piece of written communication you get from the school, whether in hard copy or online. Make hard and digital copies of everything.
  7. Read the school's code of conduct to have more context about the rules your child is supposed to have broken.

Consulting with a student discipline expert as early as possible is essential if you want to avoid having your child placed in an alternative education program. As soon as you realize the seriousness of the situation and that alternative placement is a possibility, you should contact an attorney-advisor who can help you navigate the issue.

Your Child's Future Is at Risk

When your child's school is discussing removal to an alternative program, you may think you can take on the school yourself. All it takes is simply talking reason with school officials, right? If the placement in the alternative education program is only temporary and your kid can return to a regular school later on, what's the big deal? Even a short time away from a traditional school setting can have long-lasting impacts on a teenager's education and development.

Dealing with your child's school administrators isn't like dealing with law enforcement; they're just school employees, so why would you need an attorney? In fact, school rules related to suspension, expulsion, and school discipline are reflected in Virginia law. School boards can make their codes of conduct, but they have to follow the Virginia Education Code as well. If you don't fully understand Virginia's public education laws, you may have a hard time defending your child's rights during an alternative education placement process.

Rules about school discipline in Virginia are nuanced and offer wide discretion to school boards and superintendents. A student defense legal expert will understand these laws and help you understand them as well. They'll be able to apply the Virginia Education Code to your child's specific situation. If you don't want your child to start down a bad path and to set them up for success in life instead, consider working with a student defense attorney when alternative placement is on the table.

A Student Defense Attorney Can Help Your Child Avoid an Alternative Education Placement

When your high school student is facing an exclusionary punishment like being sent to an alternative education program, an attorney-advisor well-versed in student defense issues can help you deal with the school's administrators. An advisor can coach you on how to present a defense for your child and how both you and your kid should conduct yourselves during any meetings or hearings. You may not be able to have an external advisor or attorney present with you at these meetings, but even consulting with one about your child's case beforehand can be invaluable to you as you navigate this tricky situation.

An attorney who has worked in the area of student discipline before can make sense of the Virginia Education Code, letting you know exactly what your child's rights are and how you can protect them. A student defense specialist can also read through your child's school code of conduct, or behavior regulations for the school board and county, to ensure the school administrators are following their own rules. It's vital to hold these school administrators to account, so they don't abuse their discretionary authority and send your child to another education program for a minor offense.

Expert Student Defense Attorney

Attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped hundreds of students across Virginia and the United States with disciplinary matters. He's empowered students to stand up to their schools and protect their right to an education. Joseph Lento has the experience necessary to support you and your child through this tough situation with the school. At the Lento Law Firm, we don't believe one mistake or misunderstanding should ruin a child's future.

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

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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