Dear Legal Mailbag:
As a middle school principal, I run a tight ship, and I expect that the students in my school will be respectful in their interactions with me and all the other staff members. I was infuriated, therefore, by the conduct of a seventh grader last week. A teacher complained that the student had used vulgarity in her classroom and she sent him down to the office. I was surprised that the student was totally relaxed when I called him into my office for a little chat, but I was totally shocked when, after my first question, his response was “Buzz off, Fatso!” I know that I did gain a little weight over the holidays but his impertinence was astounding. When I told him that he owed me an apology, his response was that I owed him an apology, and then he simply repeated everything I said in a sing-song voice, ending with “You’re suspended.”
After calling his mother to come pick him up, my next call was to the superintendent with my recommendation that we expel the student for his misconduct. Mr. Superintendent was surprisingly unsympathetic and responded simply with “That’s not going to happen.” I tried to impress upon him the importance of maintaining standards and making an example of this student, but he was not buying it. “We can’t expel every mouthy kid,” he responded. “We would go bankrupt!”
I was shocked that my superintendent would let financial considerations color his decision whether to expel this student. Do you know what he is talking about?
Legal Mailbag advises that expulsion be reserved for only the most serious situations of student misconduct but that, if warranted, the decision to expel a student should not be affected by financial considerations. Given changes in the law, however, financial concerns may now be a practical reality. In 2016, the General Assembly changed the statute regarding the school district obligation to provide expelled students with an alternative educational opportunity. At that time, the law was changed to provide that, effective August 15, 2017, the alternative educational opportunity required for expelled students must conform to “alternative education,” which in turn is defined by Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-74j to mean educational programming for 900 hours annually over 180 days of instruction. Clearly, providing such an alternative educational opportunity is an expensive proposition.
In 2017, the General Assembly amended the law again. Public Act 17-220 is named “An Act Concerning Education Mandate Relief.” However, Section 2, which deals with the requirements for alternative educational opportunities for expelled students, did not significantly reduce the new burden imposed in 2016. The law directed the state board of education to establish new standards for providing an alternative educational opportunity to expelled students as a second option and, on January 3, 2018, the state board of education adopted the new standards.
The new standards do provide some additional flexibility. However, they provide that the alternative educational opportunity must be a “full-time, comprehensive experience, where the learning is comparable to what the student would experience in a regular school environment.” Clearly, the traditional ten hours of tutoring per week will no longer be sufficient, and there will be significant new expense in providing expelled students with an alternative educational opportunity that conforms with either alternative education or the new standards.
Finally, in considering next steps, Legal Mailbag suggests that you refresh your memory of the suspension statute. It may well be that the appropriate disciplinary response to this rude boy would be an in-school suspension. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-233c(g) provides that “On and after July 1, 2015, all suspensions pursuant to this section shall be in-school suspensions, except a local or regional board of education may authorize the administration of schools under its direction to impose an out-of-school suspension on any pupil in (1) grades three to twelve, inclusive, if, during the hearing held pursuant to subsection (a) of this section, (A) the administration determines that the pupil being suspended poses such a danger to persons or property or such a disruption of the educational process that the pupil shall be excluded from school during the period of suspension, or (B) the administration determines that an out-of-school suspension is appropriate for such pupil based on evidence of (i) previous disciplinary problems that have led to suspensions or expulsion of such pupil, and (ii) efforts by the administration to address such disciplinary problems through means other than out-of-school suspension or expulsion, including positive behavioral support strategies.” The statute leaves the judgment to you, but unless this student has been suspended previously for such conduct, Legal Mailbag questions whether calling you “Fatso” is “such a disruption of the educational process” that an out-of-school suspension would be warranted in the first instance.