It may seem like a minor offense, but in the eyes of the high school, it's very serious. Whether it's swiping money from someone's purse or lifting a baseball bat from the locker room, theft is a disciplinary infraction for which schools have no tolerance. It also happens to be a crime. Students who steal may pride themselves on being sneaky, but if they are caught, they may be shocked to realize they are facing suspension or even expulsion from the school.
If you're a parent of a high school student who has been accused of stealing—whether or not it's true—the stakes are higher than you might realize. Not only could your child's education and academic future be disrupted by this accusation, but if the school decides to report it to law enforcement and press charges, your child could be looking at criminal penalties, as well. Not a good way to start life on the right foot.
Because schools tend to issue disciplinary actions quickly after an alleged theft, you need to take action quickly to protect your child's interests. Hiring an experienced attorney advisor can go a long way toward preventing expulsion and keeping your student in school. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped many high school students around the country who are facing serious accusations. The Lento Law Firm is providing the following important information, so you know what to expect, and what steps to take if your student is accused of theft.
The word theft is a blanket term that refers to taking something that belongs to someone else without their permission. In terms of a high school code of conduct violation, theft can take many forms. It includes stealing school property, stealing from teachers/faculty/staff, and stealing from other students.
Some common examples of what could constitute a theft infraction at high school:
- Breaking into another student's locker and taking something out of it
- Lifting an article of clothing from a clothes hook or cubicle
- Taking a personal item from a teacher's desk
- Sneaking into the band room and stealing a musical instrument
- Accosting a student or teacher and forcibly taking something from them
- “Borrowing” a piece of school property without asking (even if the student intends to return it, it counts as theft)
It's also important to note that in some states (and some schools), the definition of theft also includes any attempt to steal. So if a student tries to take something and is caught, they may not be able to get out of trouble by simply putting it back. The attempt counts as theft.
Why High Schools Treat Theft as a Serious Infraction
In the eyes of a student, stealing may not seem like a big deal, especially if the item is small, inexpensive, or easy to replace—just like some lies are considered “little white lies.” But school take acts of theft very seriously, and often punish them severely, for three important reasons:
- To keep the campus safe and secure. Students spend a lot of time at school, and their belongings must often be left unwatched. The school authorities want to maintain a positive learning environment where students feel like they and their belongings are safe. Acts of theft break that sense of security and trust, and they can disrupt the learning environment.
- To protect school property. Schools operate on limited budgets, and the equipment and supplies needed to operate them cost money. When students steal school property, it costs money to replace those items.
- To keep from being legally liable. Schools feel obligated to punish acts of theft because failing to do so could be considered neglect. (The last thing they want is a lawsuit from angry parents whose child was stolen from.)
The Ramifications of Theft
While each school has its own policies on how acts of theft are dealt with, most high schools treat theft as a serious offense worthy of severe consequences. Some will extend grace for first-time offenders, but for repeated thefts or thefts of more significant items, the school is likely to respond swiftly and severely. Suffice it to say if your child is caught stealing or is accused of theft, that student could be facing immediate suspension or expulsion from the school.
But the trouble for your child could potentially extend beyond expulsion from the school, as well—because theft is at the very least a misdemeanor crime. Schools are unlikely to press charges for theft of minor consequence, but if the missing item is large or high value, they may opt to report the incident to law enforcement. Likewise, if your child allegedly stole from another student, that student or their parents might report the theft to the police. If law enforcement gets involved, your child could be facing a criminal record as well as expulsion.
How did my child get accused of stealing?
Many parents believe their children are incapable of stealing, and rightly so. They might find an accusation of theft to be outrageous. However, kids do sometimes get caught in a moment of weakness—and sometimes, due to circumstantial evidence, they may even be falsely accused. Whether or not the child is guilty, here are some common ways your high school student could end up being accused of theft:
- Caught on camera. School security cameras may have captured the theft on video and your child was identified as the culprit.
- Witnesses. A teacher or another student may have witnessed the act of theft when your child wasn't aware anyone was watching.
- “Borrowing” the item. Teens sometimes take something without permission, telling themselves they are borrowing it intending to return it. Your child may have “borrowed” the item without permission, not realizing that this constitutes theft.
- Accused by another student. A student may have noticed a personal item went missing, and for some reason, your child was the most likely suspect.
- Framed. A stolen item might turn up in your child's bag or locker, and someone else put it there either to hide it or to frame your child.
Could my child be suspended or expelled even if the school can't prove the accusation?
Yes, it is quite possible. Accusing your child of theft is one thing; proving it is another. However, it's important to note that schools do not have the same burden of proof as defendants might have in a courtroom. Where the criminal justice system places the burden of proof on the accuser and prosecutors to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that someone is guilty, high schools aren't required to operate by this same standard. Instead, many schools use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard to determine guilt or innocence. This means if your child is accused of theft, the school only needs to be convinced of a 50 percent or greater likelihood that your child committed the act in order to declare them guilty and impose punishment. This, of course, increases the odds that your child could be innocent and still be suspended or expelled. (It also underscores the importance of having an attorney-advisor to help.)
What is the disciplinary process if my child is accused of stealing?
Each school will have its own policies for dealing with disciplinary infractions, and these can usually be found in the Student Handbook or Code of Conduct issued by the school. However, the action plan is fairly similar among most schools. You can expect the school to follow a process along the following lines:
- Notifying the parents of the accusation, including details (e.g., what was allegedly stolen, from whom, and who reported it)
- Investigating the incident (e.g., looking at the available evidence, reviewing security footage, interviewing the student and any witnesses).
- Calling a meeting with the parents and student to discuss the incident.
- Making a final determination and deciding on punishment.
- The student and/or parents may appeal any adverse decision before it becomes final.
What are the repercussions if the school decides my child is guilty?
Schools typically punish acts of theft swiftly and severely, often with lasting repercussions for the student. Without intervention, here's an idea of what your child could be facing:
Possible short-term repercussions of theft:
- Formal suspension (ranging from a few days to the end of the school term)
- Expulsion (permanent removal from the school)
- Possible criminal charges (if the incident was severe or violent enough that the school feels compelled to report it)
- Your child may have to make restitution for what was stolen
Possible long-term repercussions:
- Your child could have a permanent negative mark on their school record.
- You may have difficulty enrolling your child in another school.
- Your child may have difficulty getting into certain schools—or be ineligible for financial aid.
- Your child's future employment opportunities may be limited—either by failing to get a diploma or because of the expulsion itself.
- Your child could potentially face criminal charges and a criminal record if convicted.
Will we have an opportunity to respond to the accusation before the school decides on a punishment?
Yes. The school usually calls a meeting with parents and the child before making a final decision on what kind of penalty should be invoked, and at this meeting, you should have the opportunity to share the student's side of the story. However, you should be aware that schools tend to take swift action on these issues, so you may have little time to make a case for your child's innocence or to negotiate for leniency. The help of an attorney-advisor can make a huge difference as to whether you are successful.
What might convince the school authorities either to drop the accusation or to impose a punishment other than suspension or expulsion?
If the school has photographic evidence (i.e., security footage) proving your child stole—or if they have eyewitness testimony from a school authority—you may have a difficult time convincing the school not to impose some sort of penalty. However, you may have room to convince the school to go easy based on one or more of the following arguments:
- It is a first-time offense, and the student is truly remorseful.
- The student didn't intend to steal. (E.g., they borrowed the item without asking, intending to return it. In other words, it was an act of poor judgment, not an attempt to steal.)
- The student is innocent and is being accused based on circumstantial evidence. (Support this notion by pointing out the lack of evidence, and if possible, presenting your own proof of the child's innocence. School authorities don't have to prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt, but they usually don't want to falsely punish a student, either.)
How can an attorney-advisor help in this situation?
You won't need an attorney in an official capacity unless your child faces criminal charges—and schools don't generally allow parents or students to bring legal representation to combat accusations of disciplinary violations. However, you do have the right to hire an attorney in an advisory role—and this can go a long way toward obtaining a more favorable outcome for your child. A good attorney advisor will:
- Review the details of the alleged incident and school disciplinary policies, and advise you on what is at stake.
- Help you decide on the best approach to responding to the accusation.
- Help you gather helpful evidence that you might not have considered.
- Provide sound insights on how to improve your chances for a favorable decision from the school.
- Provide an additional layer of accountability to ensure the school abides by its own policies and gives your child fair treatment.
- Help you and your child appeal an adverse decision, if needed.
An accusation of theft from the school can have a serious impact on your child's future. However, you are not powerless in this situation. With the help of an experienced attorney advisor, you have an excellent chance of mitigating the effects of this crisis and saving your child's educational prospects. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is recognized as a national expert in student discipline cases, and he knows how to best position your child for a favorable outcome. Don't let a single mistake or a false accusation derail your child's future. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to see how we can help.