Public vs. Private Disciplinary Violations

Bullying. Hazing. Cheating and plagiarism. Unfortunately, these behaviors are a reality in today's school classrooms both at public high schools and at private high schools and prep schools. And while this kind of student behavior may be present to some degree in all school environments, what is different, however, is how each school responds to violations of school policy.

Discipline for school code violations varies significantly based on whether the infraction occurred at a public school, or a private school, or a prep school. This is because the punishment for school infractions is based on how the students' rights are defined by the school, and the individual school policies that are in place. School codes of conduct serve as the foundation for those policies, and they outline students' rights.

Fundamental Differences Between Public Schools and Private Schools

There are many differences between public schools and private schools, and not just the fact that one is free and open, and the other one requires an application, acceptance, and tuition payments. Some may think that all private schools have a religious affiliation, but that is not the case. Many private educational institutions are, however, religious.

The fundamental difference between public schools and private schools is that public schools are an extension of the state and local government's education department. Public schools are funded by state tax dollars, whereas private schools and prep schools do not receive the same level of state funding. As such, private schools charge tuition to pay for their teacher salaries and to fund the overall costs for administering and operating the school.

Because public schools are funded by the government (and taxpayer money), public schools must comply with state and local government regulations. Because private schools and prep schools are governed by private authorities, they do not have to adhere to all the same government standards.

Practical Differences Between Public Schools and Private Schools

In addition to the fundamental differences between public schools and private schools indicated above, there are practical differences between public schools and private schools as well.

  • Application and admissions process: Public schools are free and open to all students; private schools often have a discerning admissions process. Students and families at private schools often embrace the same values and mission as those of the private institution
  • Teaching certification: teachers at public schools are required by the state to have a teaching certification. Private schools, on the other hand, may or may not require teaching certificates
  • Teacher Removal: Public school teachers are difficult to remove from their positions. Teachers at private schools, however, often have renewable contracts, so they can be removed from their positions by simply not renewing their contract
  • Course curriculum: public schools must follow a set curriculum that is mandated by the government; private schools do not. Some private schools may offer additional subject specializations or electives to students so that students can pursue their interests. Parochial private schools often offer classes in religion, and special education schools may offer a curriculum that is tailored to the needs of their student body
  • Class size: private schools and prep schools often limit their class sizes to a maximum of 15 students per class; many public schools try to limit their class sizes to 20-25 students per class, or more in heavily populated urban areas

School Codes Of Conduct

School policies regarding acceptable behavior at school—and the potential penalties for violating those policies—are outlined in the school's codes of conduct. This is the case for public schools, private schools, prep schools, and charter schools. School codes of conduct are often included in the student handbook, and are addressed at the start of a school year. In the case of private schools and prep schools, the codes of conduct are agreed to by the student as a condition of acceptance at the school.

Codes of conduct are intended to clarify the expectations that a given institution has established for its students and teachers. Codes of conduct ensure that both students and teachers are operating under the same standards and that any disciplinary actions are clearly communicated prior to any potential infraction. Codes of conduct may state school policies for a variety of behaviors and actions, including possession of drugs or alcohol, cheating, smoking cigarettes or vaping on school property, insubordination, dress codes, abusive language, and more.

Serious Violations Of School Codes of Conduct and Policies

While some violations of school codes of conduct—such as reporting late to class—may be considered relatively minor at most schools and often result in punishments such as a warning or detention, other violations of the school's code of conduct are more serious.

While codes of conduct vary from school to school, some violations of the code of conduct that are considered to be more serious may include any of the following and more:

  • bullying
  • hazing
  • alcohol use
  • drug use
  • sexual assault
  • rape
  • violence
  • plagiarizing
  • cheating
  • threatening another student's safety
  • theft of school property
  • hate crimes

Naturally, more serious violations of student codes of conduct tend to bring more serious consequences. But punishments differ between public and private institutions—and from one school to another.

Student Rights at Public Schools vs. Private Schools

One thing is true for both public and private schools: all educational institutions have a responsibility to provide their student bodies with a structured, safe learning environment in which their students can learn and thrive. Discipline for rule violations or violations of school policy are handled differently at public and private schools because the rights of students differ at those two school environments.

At public high schools, students' rights are based on both federal and state law. Codes of conduct outline the rules, expectations, and policies that students of the school must follow. Any disciplinary action imposed for an infraction of these rules and policies must comply with state and federal due process.

At private schools and prep schools, which are considered independent institutions, the students' rights are based on the handbook issued by the school and other written policies adopted by the school. Private schools and prep schools are not, for the most part, regulated by state or federal law.

What Is Due Process and Why Is It Important?

Due process, which applies to both civil and criminal matters, requires that legal matters be resolved based on established rules and principles for the enforcement and protection of individual rights. Due process issue is particularly important in the context of private and public schools and any alleged wrongdoing by the student at the school.

How Does Due Process Work at Public Schools?

Students at all public schools—including public universities—have a constitutional right to due process in disciplinary matters. Due process is guaranteed against actions by state governments under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Due process is guaranteed against actions by the federal government under the Fifth Amendment.

So what does this mean? At public schools—even in public elementary schools—due process means that if a student is accused of wrongdoing, the school must follow certain procedures to protect student rights. Students at public schools also have the right to defend themselves against the accusation being brought against them.

As summarized by The Center for Public Education:

“The hurdles erected by the U. S. Constitution's Fourth and Fifth Amendments are exclusive to the nation's public schools. Private K-12 institutions have far more leeway to conduct unfettered investigations, withhold findings if they choose, and unceremoniously ask a student or faculty member to leave. Tuition and employment contracts rule private school relationships, while America's social compact and legal contract (the Constitution) governs how public officials must act.”

How Does Due Process Work at Private Schools?

Students at private schools are not necessarily entitled to the same constitutional rights and due process as students at public high schools. In deciding to attend a private school or a prep school, students at private schools have essentially agreed to relinquish their legal right to traditional due process as provided under the U.S. Constitution. Aware of it or not, this happens when the students—and their parents—agree to the private school's code of conduct and other policies as a condition of their enrollment.

By signing the school's handbook, the student and the school have entered into a legal, binding contract, and any disciplinary action that is carried out by the school will be in accordance with the student handbook.

What About Due Process at Charter Schools?

Charter schools are considered public institutions, and they are separate from any public school district. Charter schools are not permitted to charge tuition and they are open to every student. While they have their own contract with the state in which they are located, charter schools receive their funding from state governments. And because of that funding, charter schools offer their students the same due process as public high schools.

Disciplinary Process at Public Schools

While the disciplinary process is not exactly the same at each public school, for the most part, the disciplinary process at public schools includes the following measures:

  • the school notifies the student of the accusation of wrongdoing
  • the school notifies the student's parents or guardians of the accusation
  • the school conducts an investigation of the alleged wrongdoing
  • the alleged violation is discussed by the student, parents, guardians, and school authorities
  • depending upon the alleged wrongdoing, a formal hearing may be required
  • the school issues a determination regarding whether the student is innocent or guilty of the alleged wrongdoing
  • the school decides the penalties that are to be administered against the student for the wrongdoing
  • the student may have the opportunity to appeal the school's decision before it becomes finalized

Because private schools and prep schools write their own codes of conduct, the disciplinary process at these schools may be drastically different.

Disciplinary Process at Private Schools and Prep Schools

While private schools may have codes of conduct that are quite similar to the policies of public schools, the rights that students are given at private schools and the disciplinary measures that a private school can establish for violating school policy are quite different.

Private schools may issue disciplinary action without an appeals process or other rights afforded students at public schools. For example, because private schools establish their own disciplinary policies, a private school can accuse a student of violating school policy or its code of conduct, and the school is under no legal obligation to inform the student of the accusation. Private schools are also not legally obligated to notify the student's parent or guardian of the allegation.

At private schools, students are also not guaranteed the right to defend themselves, nor is the school required to conduct any investigation of the evidence before making a determination regarding the student's guilt or innocence. In fact, a private school can issue a disciplinary action against a student without informing the student, or providing an appeals process, or without even notifying the student's parents or guardians of the accusation and punishment.

Disciplinary Penalties at Private Schools and Prep Schools

Because there is significant leeway regarding the policies and procedures set forth at private schools and prep schools, the penalties carried out at these institutions tend to be much harsher than those of public schools.

Penalties for serious offenses at private schools may include any of the following and more:

  • expulsion
  • suspension
  • disciplinary probation
  • academic probation
  • permanent note on academic record
  • transfer to a disciplinary educational program
  • loss of scholarship
  • loss of tuition
  • expensive restitution requirements
  • loss of campus housing

Penalties imposed upon a student for a code of conduct violation can impact a student's future for years to come.

Some private schools provide due process to students who violate the school's code of conduct. Others do not. There is no uniformity on this issue from one private school to the next. So if a student and their parents are considering attending a private school, it is in their best interests to consult the school's handbook and their code of conduct so that they have a clear understanding of a student's rights at the school and can make an informed decision regarding whether to attend.

School Discipline Is a Hot Topic on Many Levels

In the past few years, the topic of school discipline has been discussed at many levels—from local school districts right up to the state and federal legislative bodies. Studies show that severe disciplinary policies at schools disrupt the process of learning and make students feel unwelcome, misunderstood, and undervalued.

To that end, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice have issued joint guidance on school disciplinary measures in an effort to establish safe and supportive school learning environments and disciplinary practices. Based on supporting evidence from school districts and in-depth evaluation of certain targeted steps taken by public schools, the joint guidance offers proven strategies for the replacement of existing zero-tolerance policies. These alternative measures include character education programs, social and emotional learning programs, behavioral support for at-risk students, and other measures.

Over the past several years, lawmakers have enacted bills that restrict the use of expulsion and suspension. In fact, the states have adopted at least 29 bills addressing expulsion, suspension, and alternative disciplinary measures.

What Is Title IX?

Title IX is a federal civil rights law passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX is a law that is designed to protect people from discrimination based on their sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. Title IX states that:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Title IX applies to schools, institutions, and local and state educational agencies that receive federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. This financial assistance is provided to approximately 17,600 local school districts, more than 5,000 postsecondary institutions, vocational rehabilitation agencies, for-profit schools, charter schools, education agencies, museums, and libraries. Title IX is enforced by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Attorney-advisor Joseph D. Lento has extensive experience successfully representing individuals who are accused of Title IX violations.

Steps to Take If You Are Accused Of Wrongdoing at School

If you are accused of wrongdoing at a public school, you will receive notification from the school regarding the accusation, and will be given the opportunity to defend yourself against the charge. If you are accused of wrongdoing at a private school, you may or may not be notified of the allegation and given the opportunity to defend yourself.

Either way, there are a few key steps to take if you are accused of wrongdoing at school:

  • Code of conduct violations and other wrongdoing at a school—both public and private—are serious allegations. Take them seriously; they can have a long-term impact on your life
  • Do not discuss the allegation of wrongdoing with others outside of a select few. This applies to any conversations concerning the wrongdoing with school administrators, law enforcement officers, and friends. It is also important to refrain from sharing information regarding the allegation in texts, tweets, and social media posts. Anything you say to anyone about the alleged wrongdoing can be used against you in ways that you would not anticipate, and this can have a negative impact on your case. So it is best to speak only to your parents and an experienced attorney-advisor about the alleged wrongdoing until your legal advisor informs you that you may speak openly to others about the alleged wrongdoing
  • Speak with an attorney who is experienced in handling school code of conduct violations at both public and private schools. Experience matters in these cases. A qualified legal expert will protect your rights and develop a tailored, strategic defense of the charges brought against you

Experienced Attorney-Advisor for Public and Private High School Disciplinary Infractions

When you learn that your child has been accused of wrongdoing at school, the news can be shocking. Even more shocking is not learning of the accusation against your child at all, and only hearing of the punishment that has been handed down by the private school that regularly sends you a hefty tuition bill. Emotions often run high. And that's understandable. But emotions alone will have no effect on the school's accusation of wrongdoing against your child, nor will they bring about a positive outcome to the situation at hand. But an experienced attorney-advisor can.

Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have extensive experience helping high school and college students defend themselves against charges brought by public and private educational institutions. Attorney Lento has handled hundreds of school code of conduct cases, providing compassionate counsel to students and their parents and working tirelessly on their behalf to achieve the best possible outcome in each situation.

Wrongdoing at a school can lead to expulsion or suspension from the school, loss of a scholarship, and the possibility of a mark on your school record that stands in the way of future educational and employment opportunities. Don't leave your future to chance; call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 or contact us online to arrange for a confidential consultation.

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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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