The Legal Landscape of School Discipline

Last Updated: January 02, 2009

This article appeared in the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

When schools discipline students, everyone involved should be aware of rights and responsibilities as governed by federal and state law and local policy. Specific approaches and legal requirements differ among states and localities, but all school discipline policies are governed by the principles discussed here.

Student Rights of Due Process

School disciplinary actions are most closely governed when they involve removing a student from the educational process. The law generally supports keeping students in school, barring a very good reason to remove them, and provides alternative discipline routes.

In a 1975 landmark decision the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools cannot suspend students even for a short time without giving them "due process." Public school officials must give students oral or written notice of the charges against them and, if the student denies the charges, an explanation of the evidence and an opportunity to tell his or her side of the story. Students have more formal procedural protections if they are to be removed for periods of more than ten days. State laws usually provide additional student protections for both short and long term removals.

Different levels of due process apply depending on how serious the offense and the punishment are. For example, a brief time-out or removal from sports or extracurricular activities does not afford students due process rights. Courts have looked closely at the individual case facts when lawsuits have claimed due process violations. In-school suspension or alternative school placement where no learning is taking place may be treated more like an expulsion than a suspension under the law.

School Responsibilities

For expulsions or suspensions longer than 10 days, courts have typically held that schools must, at a minimum, provide written notice of the charges to parents and a hearing before the school board. In some states students have the right to an attorney or the right to question witnesses at an expulsion hearing. Further, students cannot be deprived of basic constitutional rights as a result of searches or limitations on speech and other freedoms aimed at preventing school violence.

Zero Tolerance

Partly as a result of tragic school shootings, local school boards, states, and some federal legislation have implemented zero-tolerance policies. These rules ostensibly impose severe punishments for certain behavior without individual case consideration.

Little known, however, is the fact that virtually every zero-tolerance policy can be modified on a case-by-case basis. For example, the 1994 federal Gun Free Schools Act appears to require a one-year expulsion for any student bringing a gun to school. But school administrators have flexibility in choosing other punishments. Community education about other discipline options is very important in zero tolerance situations.

It is important to note that there is little research that zero tolerance is effective in preventing school disruption. In fact, a large 2006 study conducted for the American Psychological Association, "Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations," (see RPM-Premium Exclusives) found that schools with higher rates of suspension and expulsion have less satisfactory school climates and governance, spend more time on disciplinary matters, and have lower school-wide achievement than other demographically similar schools.

Special Education

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) limits suspensions to ten days, requires educational services during suspensions, and sets more specific due process procedures for students with identified disabilities. Schools must also determine whether the misbehavior was caused by the student's disability.


It is crucial that local communities and schools engage in frank discussions about discipline and examine practices and policies. In every disciplinary incident, there is the opportunity and requirement for schools and parents to communicate and work together to solve problems. Sharing information about the legal requirements that govern school discipline -- both the rights afforded students and the responsibility of school officials -- can help create common ground and understanding.

Read more from the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.