When your child attended their first day of school, you may have seen the first step in their education as the first in a long series of successful steps — including a timely high school graduation, a great college experience, and a fulfilling, prestigious career.
That's natural. It's exhilarating to imagine how your child's life will play out. Your child may have even gotten in on the fun, telling you excitedly how they were planning on being a doctor or an astronaut.
Before that happens — you might have told them — they needed to do well in high school and get a high school diploma. And you'd have been right.
Unfortunately, for many students, getting that high school diploma can be a lot tougher than expected.
After all: Young students (even those in high school) sometimes make mistakes. Whether a problem arises due to a series of miscommunications or misunderstandings, teenagers can sometimes find themselves caught in bad situations.
When this happens severely or consistently, some schools in Arizona may recommend alternative education for your child. This can clearly throw a wrench in your child's educational experience and your family's day-to-day lives.
What Is Disciplinary Alternative Education in Arizona?
If your student has a significant disciplinary experience at their Arizona school, they may get slapped with a suspension. They could also get expelled from their school.
Under Arizona law, in these situations, a school needs to come up with an alternative to ensure that the student has access to education even if they are being subjected to exclusionary discipline.
Arizona Revised Statutes note the following:
“Each school district shall establish an alternative to suspension program in consultation with local law enforcement officials or school resource officers. The school district governing board shall adopt policies to determine the requirements for participation in the alternative to suspension program….The alternative to suspension program shall be discipline intensive and require academic work, and may require community service, groundskeeping and litter control, parent supervision, and evaluation or other appropriate activities.”
You might expect that this is a repercussion reserved for clearly severe behavior. This is not always the case. There are some schools that expel students who misbehave on a regular basis or are otherwise difficult to deal with. Other schools may be overcautious when it comes to discipline and send away students who aren't even responsible for the alleged infractions.
While Arizona may have some alternative education programs specifically designated for students who are experiencing disciplinary issues, they may not be your first choice for your child. And, of course, having a referral to alternative education on your child's permanent record isn't exactly conducive to competitive college admissions…or even your child's self-esteem and happiness.
In Arizona, alternative schools must identify with the state as such. They must show exactly how they plan to serve a population of at-risk students, and they must get re-approved as an alternative school on a regular (yearly) basis.
Who do Alternative Educational Programs in Arizona Serve?
Alternative schools in Arizona generally organize their communities and offerings around a specific group of at-risk students, including:
- Students with documented issues involving disruptive behavior
- Students who have dropped out of school
- Students who have failed to progress academically as quickly as expected
- Students who are primary caregivers and wards of the state
Attending one of these schools is not necessarily a bad thing. For students who are part of a vulnerable population of students who have clearly demonstrated that they may not exist well in a regular school setting (e.g., in cases of repeated, extremely severe, and dangerous behavior), an alternative school setting may be the best place.
The thing is, the resources allocated to these schools aren't always focused on stellar academic offerings. In some cases, alternative schools exhibit substandard curricula and unhelpful support services. You may not want your child to be attending this school, especially if you think their disciplinary referral was an overreaction.
And, since you may not have control over the specific alternative education referral your student receives (or the available alternative high schools in your area), it's very possible that your child's new school is very far away. If you've moved to a specific neighborhood to be part of your chosen academic community, suddenly having to drive a long way in another direction every single day can be extremely disruptive for your entire family.
What About Online Alternative Educational Placements in Arizona?
Depending on your student's circumstances and the options available in your area, your school may recommend an alternative placement to an online school.
This may or may not be a better option for your student. While some of the concerns you may have surrounding an in-person alternative education school may be less present with an online school, there are other issues that could arise. For example, perhaps your child really thrives in an in-person academic environment and doesn't do as well studying on their own.
In any case, if your child receives a disciplinary referral to any school (including an online program), they'll have a note or a gap on their transcript that indicates their involvement in a disciplinary process. This will be enough for any future schools to take a serious second look at your student's viability as a candidate.
What Triggers a Disciplinary Referral to Alternative Education in Arizona?
Arizona state laws concerning student discipline and expulsion are relatively general, especially when compared to other states.
Arizona Revised Statutes 15-841 states that a school can expel a student for defiance, disruptive or disorderly behavior, violent behavior, excessive absenteeism (in some cases), or for “actions other than those listed in this subsection, as the school district deems appropriate.”
Young students (those younger than fourth grade) have some additional protections, but that's it.
Essentially, if your school or school district wants to expel your student, there may not be much protection at the state level for your student's rights.
Your specific school's code of conduct may have more information worth pursuing. Your AZ high school's code of conduct should include an extensive section on the types of behavior your school deems problematic, along with a detailed set of procedures explaining what happens if a student exhibits punishable behaviors.
If your student receives a notice that your school will be pursuing an investigation against them, one of your first actions needs to be consulting your school's code of conduct. This document is your first line of defense. When you start working with a student defense advisor to protect your child, they will help you work to ensure that your school follows its own rules to the letter. Simply taking that action and holding your school accountable can make a world of difference to your child and to your family.
Your school's code of conduct may be unique. However, common actions considered punishable by most Arizona schools include:
- Misusing a computer
- Vandalizing school property
- Use of a controlled substance
- Use of alcohol
- Bullying or cyberbullying
- Any kind of assault
- Bringing a weapon to school
Your school's code of conduct should provide specific consequences that will happen if a student performs one of these actions.
This list of consequences may include:
- Loss of student privileges
- A mandatory behavioral contract
- In-school suspension
- Out-of-school suspension
- Community service
- Referral to an alternative education program
While some of these consequences may sound more severe than others, any might trigger a disciplinary notation on your student's transcript — which can have long-term effects on your student's ability to pursue further education.
Receiving a long-term suspension, an expulsion, or a referral to an alternative education program, however, can be doubly devastating. Not only will this look bad on your student's transcript, but it can also result in immediate detriment to the quality of your student's education and to their mental health.
What are the Problems with Alternative Educational Placements in Arizona?
Although each Arizona alternative education program must adhere to certain regulations and re-certify itself with the state on a yearly basis, many parents are worried that their students simply won't receive a high-quality education while in their alternative education program.
This can lead to poor mental health outcomes and make it much more difficult for your student to keep up with their peers if they are able to return to their original school.
Concerned parents have other worries about alternative education programs in Arizona, which include:
- Issues with attendance. There isn't always an easy public transit option to get to an alternative education program, and your student's school may not be easy to get to on a regular basis.
- Criminalizing school misconduct. Being sent to an alternative education program places a clear stigma on your student's behavior. This can make your student feel like a criminal when this is not at all an appropriate label for them to bear. Many feel that alternative education heightens the focus and punishment for what is, in many cases, simply a case of school-related misbehavior.
- Revisiting alternative education is more common than it should be. If a student finds themselves in an alternative education program and manages to get back to their original high school, the chances are high that they will receive another referral to alternative education. Sometimes students even receive multiple referrals over the course of one academic year! Frequent disruptions in a student's educational experiences are detrimental to their overall performance and happiness. Your student should work to forego this cycle by negotiating their way out of the first referral to alternative education (with the help of a student defense advisor).
- Alternative education is associated with higher dropout rates. Although the point of an alternative education program is to keep students in school even after significant disciplinary issues, students often drop out of alternative education programs and never return to school at all.
Clearly, this type of program and environment is not necessarily in your child's best interest. Next, we'll talk about the steps you may be able to take to help your child avoid this outcome.
If My AZ High Schooler Is Referred to Alternative Education, Can I Appeal?
After your student has been expelled or referred to an alternative education program, you may be able to file an appeal. The specific processes for doing so are in your school's code of conduct. Typically, the appeal process involves distilling your child's defense into a persuasive argument, filing it with the school (or even the school board), and waiting for a response.
Your student defense attorney will be able to help you maximize this opportunity to benefit your child.
In an alternative education referral process, there is a chance that this appeal may happen after the fact — especially if your child's alleged actions resulted in an immediate school removal. (This severe action is generally reserved for dangerous situations, e.g., if the student is causing harm to their peers.)
If your school's response to your appeal is negative (and final), you may still have routes to work towards a favorable outcome for your child. Your defense advisor may be able to speak directly with your school board through your school's office of the general council. This direct response is often very successful. Finally, if no other avenue seems to be offering you relief, you may even be able to pursue litigation in the Arizona courts.
How to Protect Your Child Through a Disciplinary Issue At Your Arizona High School
The very last thing you want, as a parent of an Arizona high schooler, is for their referral to alternative education to be a last-minute surprise.
If you learn about what's happening at that late stage of the game, there may not be as much you can do to protect your child's future. Instead, it's vital that you get involved as soon as you can. The moment you become aware that your child may be up against the disciplinary process at your Arizona high school, consider taking the following actions:
- Don't take your child's word for what's happening. Your child is stressed and scared, and they may not even know the full extent of your school's processes or plans. Instead, contact your student's school immediately. Ask them what is happening, and write down everything they say in a dated note. If possible, have your school tell you the specific part of your school's code of conduct that your student allegedly broke.
- Call a student defense attorney-advisor as soon as you can. This may feel like an overreaction. It isn't. These types of cases are won or lost very early in the process — often, long before a formal hearing actually happens. Once your student defense attorney-advisor hears from you and receives any details you have, they can help you start to work towards a favorable outcome for your family.
- Talk to your child. Ask them to give you their side of the story. Write down everything they tell you, or ask them to write it down themselves. Encourage them to add as much detail as possible. In addition, ask your child whether everything else at school is all right. Are their teachers treating them well? Is there any drama happening with their peers that you should know about? Write this down, too.
- Take a quick look at your child. Assess to see whether they have any bruises or other injuries. Take pictures of them, and collect any evidence that may indicate your child has been hurt, if evidence is present.
- Start a log of all conversations you have with school officials or anyone related to the case. Make sure that you note the date, time, and the length of any conversations you have.
- Make copies of any emails or other pieces of written communication you receive related to this case, and keep those copies in your log.
Why This Is Important: Remember Your Student's Future Is On the Line
There may be some who wonder what the fuss is all about when it comes to alternative education.
Let's think about what happens when your student tries to enroll in another school — or when they apply to the college of their dreams.
When the person in charge of awarding that opportunity — say, a college admissions officer — reviews your child's transcript, they'll see the gap in your child's transcript caused by a suspension or the quick referral and pivot to an alternative education program. Even if you feel you have a good explanation for that, even if your student wasn't responsible for the allegations at all, that disciplinary note will probably be enough on its own for that admissions officer to throw your child's file in the ‘rejections' pile.
And, if your child does happen to get an interview, they're going to find themselves in the unenviable position of needing to explain and justify their experiences instead of being able to concentrate on why they're a competitive candidate.
Being in alternative education itself can be isolating and psychologically draining. Your child will have to go from being a part of their familiar academic environment and community to a completely strange, new academic setting in a very short period of time. That's not even to mention that the alternative education program may not have specific courses your child was counting on. If your child is attending their current high school for access to very specialized courses — say, to be a part of a unique club, or to prepare for art school or similar — there's a very good chance that they won't have access to these resources any longer after their disciplinary placement. This may mean that your child has to quickly change their academic plans or even abandon previously hoped-for career paths.
By working quickly and connecting with a student defense attorney-advisor, you can help your child avoid this outcome.
How Can a Student Defense Attorney-Advisor Help My Arizona High Schooler?
Have you looked at your student's code of conduct recently?
Very likely, it's a lengthy, complex document with lots of frustrating legalese and sections that don't seem to apply to your case.
Your student defense advisor can help you dive through this document to find precedent, loopholes, little-known rules, and more to keep your school accountable to its own processes.
More than that, your student defense advisor can:
- Help you negotiate with school staff or school board members
- Go through the evidence available to determine the best possible strategy and defense for your student
- Be aware of recent cases, local laws, and relevant precedent so they can leverage anything possible for you and your student
- Coach you on the best ways possible to present your case and discuss the matter with your school, so even if the advisor isn't allowed to be present during hearings, they're still helping from afar
Even just having a student defense advisor around will signal to your school that you're taking this process very seriously. That, itself, can make a big difference!
Work with a Student Defense Attorney-Advisor to Protect Your Child's Future
Joseph D. Lento is a student defense attorney who has provided specific expert, expertise, and support for students in Arizona and across the United States facing these stressful issues.
With Joseph D. Lento at their sides, these students have been able to protect their rights (and their futures). Joseph D. Lento can help you go through your school's code of conduct, determine the most strategic possible defense, and even help you stand up to your district or negotiate with your school board.
To learn more about how we can help you, contact the Lento Law Firm today. Give us a call at 888-535-3686 to get the support you need to help your child and your family through this stressful time.