School fights on the playground or in the halls are common, and students have often been punished for it—but gone are the days when this behavior is sort of “winked at” as part of the school experience. These days, schools are a lot more sensitive about fighting and assaults among students—in part due to the increased fear of lawsuits—and they are far more likely to impose severe discipline for these infractions, including and up to suspension and expulsion.
Suffice it to say that if you're notified that your high school student has been accused of assaulting another student, the stakes are much higher now than they might have been a few decades ago. If your child is suspended or expelled from school due to assault, it could create huge complications for your child with regard to finishing school, attending college, or even getting a good job. You need to take action quickly to mitigate the damage before your child's future is negatively impacted.
One way to protect your child's interests is to hire a skilled attorney-advisor to help you navigate the disciplinary process. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has extensive experience nationwide in student discipline cases, including dealing with severe disciplinary infractions like assault. The Lento Law Firm is providing the following key information, so you know what to do if and when your high school student is accused.
The Definition(s) of Assault
When we use the term “fighting” to describe an altercation between students, some people tend not to take it too seriously. But the term “assault” carries much more weight in part because it signifies a crime. However, defining “assault” can be a bit ambiguous because the term has a different legal meaning from state to state—and even among schools. In many states, the term “assault” doesn't just mean physically striking someone else—it also encompasses the attempt to hit someone else, typically with an intent to cause injury. (In these states, even “taking a swing” at someone constitutes criminal assault.) However, in other states, like New York, assault may only be considered a crime if the victim is injured. If your child is accused of assault, it's important for you to understand exactly how the school defines “assault” compared to what actually happened. This may make a difference in the outcome and how severe the penalty is.
That said, the following are examples of what might be considered assault of a student at your child's high school:
- Two or more students fighting (more on this momentarily)
- Hitting or pushing another student
- Lunging at another student with the intent to hurt them
- Throwing a foreign object at another student
- Attempting to hit another student (even if the attempt is unsuccessful)
- Making another student feel like a physical attack is imminent
The Ramifications of Assaulting a Student
Every school may address the issue of student assault with varying degrees of severity. A squabble or brawl between two quarreling students won't always result in suspension, for example—especially if it's an uncommon or isolated instance—although some lesser form of punishment may be administered. However, repeated instances of fighting, an unprovoked attack, or an assault that results in injury will almost always be dealt with harshly by the school. Suspensions are quite common with student assaults—and expulsion is a distinct possibility. In certain cases, you may also be subject to civil lawsuits, especially if the other student was injured as a result of the attack.
How did my child get accused of assaulting another student?
Assaults among students can be a very tricky issue to navigate in high school because interactions between students can be complex, and there may be many underlying reasons for violence erupting. For that reason alone, there are many more opportunities for a student to be wrongly or unfairly accused of assault. For example, if two students are seen fighting, many schools typically count it as “mutual combat” (rather than figuring out whether one student was attacking and the other defending) and simply suspend both students. The bottom line is just because your student is accused of assault, it doesn't necessarily mean they are guilty or that they should be suspended or expelled from school. There could be many reasons why your child was involved in an altercation that don't include the intent to hurt anyone.
Here are some common ways a high school student could be accused of assaulting another student:
- Attempting to stop an attack. The action may have been self-defense, not an attempt to fight back.
- Defending another student from attack. Your child may have been attempting to intervene in an assault against another student.
- A misunderstood action. A sudden movement may have been incorrectly interpreted as an attempted assault.
- The student was provoked. A student may have been “egging on” your child, and they reacted in a moment of impulse (not necessarily with an intent to cause harm).
- A reaction to bullying. Your child may have been attempting to stand up to a bully.
If my child is accused of assaulting another student, how can I expect the school to respond?
Every high school has its own policies and procedures for dealing with violence between students—or an attack of one student against another. Generally speaking, however, most schools will follow an action plan similar to the following:
- Physically stopping the altercation if it is ongoing (i.e., separating the students, pulling them from class, detaining them in the principal's office, etc.).
- Notifying the parents.
- Investigating the incident (e.g., questioning witnesses and the student(s) involved, reviewing any applicable evidence to provide context for what happened).
- Calling a meeting with the parents (and possibly the student) to discuss the incident.
- Making a final determination and meting out appropriate punishment.
- The student and/or parents may appeal any adverse decision before it becomes final.
If the school decides to punish my child for assaulting a student, what are the repercussions?
Student assaults are taken very seriously, and disciplinary actions are usually decided on swiftly. Unfortunately, the ramifications for your student could last well past the incident itself. Let's look at some short-term and long-term possibilities.
Possible short-term repercussions of assaulting a student:
- Immediate temporary suspension from school pending an investigation
- Formal suspension (ranging from a few days to the end of the school term)
- Expulsion (permanent removal from the school)
Possible long-term repercussions:
- A permanent negative notation on your child's school record.
- Difficulty enrolling your child in another school.
- Difficulty gaining acceptance into college.
- Limitations on your child's career prospects. (A disrupted education can limit the types of jobs your child qualifies for—and some employers may be reluctant to hire a student who was expelled.)
- Possible criminal conviction, additional penalties, and a criminal
- The possibility of financial damages if a civil lawsuit is ultimately filed.
Will we have an opportunity to respond to the accusation of assault before the school issues disciplinary action?
Typically, yes. Most schools will confer with the parents and/or the child before finalizing punishment (especially for serious punishments like suspension and expulsion) which allows you and your child to provide context and share your side of the story. However, the window of opportunity to respond in these situations is usually very small—sometimes only a day or so—so you may only have a short time and a single opportunity to convince the high school to be lenient. In these situations, an attorney-advisor can make a huge difference.
What sort of response could convince the high school to dismiss the accusation or decide on a lesser penalty?
Depending on the severity of the assault and the circumstances surrounding it, you may have a lot of room to negotiate for an alternative punishment to help your child avoid being suspended or expelled. Your task would be to convince the school of one or more of the following:
- Your child was acting in self-defense;
- The situation is not as it appears (examples: your child was in the wrong place at the wrong time, their actions were misinterpreted, etc.);
- This was an isolated incident that will not be repeated (most effective on a first offense);
- Your child poses no further risk to the safety of the school, faculty, or students; and/or
- Your child is genuinely remorseful and agrees to submit to any recommended counseling or treatment.
How can an attorney-advisor help minimize the penalties of my child assaulting another student?
In school disciplinary cases, you're allowed to retain an attorney in an advisory role. However, the involvement of a skilled attorney advisor can make a world of difference in the outcome of the situation—often with surprising results. Here's what an attorney advisor can do:
- Help you and your child understand school policies and possible disciplinary actions so you can prepare.
- Review the facts of the case and help determine the best line of defense.
- Help you gather helpful evidence you may not have found relevant to the case.
- Advise you and your child on best practices to improve the chances of a favorable decision.
- Provide a sense of accountability so the school stays true to its own policies and ensures fair treatment of your child.
- Help you and your child appeal an adverse decision, if needed.
My high-school-aged child has been threatened with suspension or expulsion for assaulting another student. What steps should I take right now to minimize the damage?
With serious disciplinary infractions like the assault of a student, it's critical to act quickly to avoid suspension or expulsion for your child. Take the following steps as soon as you can:
Write down the details of what happened so you can recall them easily later. The less you have to recall after the fact, the easier your task becomes.
Know the school's rules, policies, and penalties for assault. Make sure you're aware of the school's definition for “assault” and how this incident fits (or doesn't fit) that definition. Also, learn the disciplinary process so you can stay ahead of the curve.
Hire a skilled attorney-advisor immediately. This one step could make the difference between whether or not your child can stay in school after being accused of assault.
Whether your child was fending off an attack, responding to bullying, made an error in judgment, or was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, a single accusation of assault can derail your child's academic and professional future unless you take action. Fortunately, you have options. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has extensive experience helping high school students and their parents navigating tough disciplinary infractions and possible severe penalties. One phone call could save your child from the long-term impact of this unfortunate incident. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to see how we can help.