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Effective now: New Options for Suspensions and Expulsions for First Time Offenders, and New Requirements for Formal Expulsion Notices; Administrators To Face New Rules For Suspensions For The 2008-2009 School Year

With seemingly little notice or fan-fare, the General Assembly modified a number of education statutes regarding student discipline including the statute providing for the out of school suspension of students.  PA 07-66, effective July 1, 2008, generally prohibits out-of-school suspensions, and extends from five to 10 days, the maximum length of in-school suspensions. Current law defines suspension as exclusion from school privileges, or from transportation services only, for up to 10 consecutive school days. Under former law, in school suspensions were limited to five school days in length. While extending the time period for in school suspensions from five (5) days to ten (10) school days, the new law essentially requires suspensions to be in-school suspension unless the school administration determines through an informal suspension hearing that (a) the student poses such a danger to person or property, or (b) is so disruptive of the education process, that he or she must receive an out of school suspension. Under former law and according to most board polices, administrators have the discretion to suspend a student, in or out of school, for behavior that either violates a board policy, poses a danger to self or others or is seriously disruptive of the educational process. To suspend a student for off campus misconduct a student’s behavior must both violate a board policy and be disruptive of the educational process.  Unfortunately, the new law fails to define what student behavior “poses such a danger to person or property” or “is so disruptive of the educational process” that it warrants an out of school suspension and leaves administrators with little guidance on how to determine whether a student’s behavior has risen to a level of severity warranting an out of school suspension. PA 07-66, effective July 1, 2008.

The legislature by enacting this bill which creates a presumption in favor of in school suspensions seems to have taken the position that students with problematic disciplinary behaviors are better served by remaining in school. While such a position is laudable as a matter of public policy, implementation may be difficult or unworkable pragmatically. A probable outcome of implementing this new law is that more suspended students than before will remain in school, but out of their classrooms. This raises a number of considerations including the need for school districts to assess whether or not their schools have the physical space, facilities and/or staff to assure that the potentially increasing numbers of suspended students can remain safely at school and be adequately supervised and educated.

Notwithstanding the significant change to the suspension statute, PA 07-66 leaves in place related statutory limitations that (1) suspension may not exceed ten consecutive school days, (2) student can be placed in in-school suspension up to 15 times or a total of 50 days in one school year, whichever results in fewer days, and (3) students can be suspended out-of-school only 10 times or 50 days in one school year, whichever results in fewer days.

Effective immediately are changes to the student suspension and expulsion statutes providing new options for suspension and expulsion for first time offenders. Now, a school administration may shorten or waive the suspension period for a student who has not previously been suspended or expelled, if the student completes an administration specified program and meets any other conditions the administration may impose. The new law also permits boards of education to similarly shorten or waive expulsions for students who have not previously been suspended or expelled. In establishing such programs to shorten or waive suspensions of expulsions for first time offenders, school officials or boards may not require that parents or students pay to participate in the program they establish. PA 07-122, effective July 1, 2007.  In many school districts, it has been common to set conditions for a student’s early return from expulsion that impose costs on the student’s family (e.g. drug testing, family counseling), and it is unclear from this new act whether or not such requirements would be considered “conditions for return”, which are permitted, or “costs to participate in the program”, established by the board, which are not. While the answer to this question remains to be resolved, it is clear that this prohibition against imposing costs on families applies to a limited group of students, those who have never previously been suspended or expelled.

Additionally, PA 07-122 gives new flexibility regarding the maintenance of the record of suspension or expulsion for a first time offender. Generally, notice of suspension or expulsion must be maintained in the cumulative record of the student until the student graduates from high school, at which time they are expunged by operation of law (except for expulsions for possession of a firearm or deadly weapon). Now, when students are suspended or expelled for the first time, the administration or the board of education, respectively, may choose to expunge such notification of suspension or expulsion when the student completes the specified program and requirements. PA 07-122.

Imbedded in the 2007 education budget implementer bill is a new requirement for formal expulsion hearing notices. Effective immediately, the notice of a formal hearing for an expulsion must include information concerning (1) legal services provided free of charge or at a reduced rate that are locally available, and (2) how parents or students can access these services. June Special Session, PA 07-03, Section 49, effective July 1, 2007.