Student Discipline and the Law
Juvenile law practitioners heard a unique presentation on Friday in Rockville, Md., on an important area of juvenile law that few have fully mastered: school discipline law and the legal significance of school sanctions, in the school house and the court house. The lawyers group enthusiastically welcomed Alyssa Fieo, Director of Legal Advocacy for the Maryland Disability Law Center, who pioneered the cause of legal advocacy for youths and disabled persons in Maryland.
Fieo presented a strong argument of why it is really important to all attorneys to learn the intricacies of education law in addition juvenile law. Both prosecutors and defense counsel, Alyssa asserts, need to be well versed in the complex system of state and federal statutes. These regulations and policies govern much of what may legally occur when schools seek to sanction students. Her discussion underscored the importance of using the wide range of applicable federal and state laws which are too often ignored in student discipline/sanction cases.
Failure to provide students with the procedural protections they are afforded can result in a downward spiral of worsening consequences to our student-clients–one which might otherwise have been avoided. Any serious effort by counsel experienced in education law can only serve to better the chances of avoiding the prospect of formal juvenile prosecution. Fieo gave several examples of such school discipline cases recently handled by MDLC attorneys.
No bona fide stake holders welcome unnecessary court involvement of disruptive students whose needs are better met by educators in school. Court involvement only places the burden on the state agencies and juvenile court systems, which, by operation of law, are intended only for juvenile delinquents who are found to be in need of services. Juvenile justice professionals and associated agencies have no interest in soliciting local schools for referrals.
Fieo’s program brought home the real world damage done to a student’s education when schools chose the most dire disciplinary sanctions available. It is very apparent why legal advocates involved in school misconduct cases should develop a deep understanding of education law. These advocates need to become adept at using the entire body of law before these children are ever charged as delinquent.
Traditionally, attorneys with the public defender’s office (many of whom were present at today’s program) do not appear in school offices for administrative hearings of student suspension, much less manifestation hearings, mediation hearings or IEP meetings. Indeed, not many juvenile law defense attorneys, and even fewer prosecutors, have the requisite knowledge needed to effectively advise young clients and their families in both education law as well as the comprehensive body of juvenile law. Students are usually unrepresented when facing the threat of school expulsion.
Similarly, in the majority of school IEP meetings, which review the critical determination of whether a student will be found entitled to the accommodations, children and their parents are usually not equipped with the assistance of qualified special education counsel at what is by any measure a critical juncture in a child’s future.
Based on Fieo’s presentation, it is apparent that legal advocates for youths inevitably face a systemic shortcoming and real disconnect between the existing systems of juvenile justice and those of public school administration. This inadvertently brings about more harm than good. Juvenile attorneys are thereby failing to deliver on their basic obligations to their youth clients.
— Patrick J. Hoover