27-Jul-2010

It’s that time of year again — new backpacks, fresh school supplies and that endless stream of paperwork to complete for each of your children moving on to a new school year. As a parent or legal guardian, you’ll be asked to sign medical releases, emergency contact sheets, sports permission slips and other forms, all legally significant since you are in effect “signing over” authority over your child and assigning in loco parentis rights to the school for a period of time each day.  While every form you sign certainly deserves more than a quick glance and a simple signature, one form in particular deserves your close and undivided attention. In fact, this form merits a full-scale family conference, because the weight of its authority will bear heavily on your children for the greater part of every school day, and can have a lasting impact on their educational careers for years to come.  We’re talking about the Code of Conduct manual that’s written by your school district’s governing body.  Warning: These documents can intimidating — try to remember that the rules and policies they outline are designed to protect your child,  and promote a positive, safe learning environment.  They are not intended to create an atmosphere of fear! 

Arizona Revised Statues (A.R.S §15-341) gives broad authority and local autonomy to school district s “to hold pupils to strict account for disorderly conduct on school property” and to discipline pupils for disorderly conduct on the “way to and from school.”  As a result, Codes of Conduct can vary from district to district reflecting local interests, but they all must comply with and incorporate Arizona law and provide due process rights as provided by the Constitution. By signing your district’s Code of Conduct, you and your child (typically 7th graders and older) acknowledge that you have read and understand that specific district’s rules and agree to abide by them.  You are also agreeing to accept the school’s special, much more liberal rights to search and seize property, define dress codes, prohibit certain speech and maintain order and discipline on the campus of the institution.  At school for instance, your children cannot presume the same rights of privacy that they can at work or elsewhere.  Lockers, desks and other school owned spaces can be searched randomly by an administrator without reasonable cause of suspicion.  Cars parked in the school parking can be “searched” by drug sniffing dogs at any time to establish reasonable cause for a search. 

Most Codes of Conduct contain several “zero tolerance” policies that require immediate, mandatory referrals to police departments for criminal investigation.  Zero tolerance policies are controversial to be sure, and you may not agree with your district’s use of them, but they will be invoked in the event of a violation.  Special consequences can also apply when certain crimes are committed on school grounds — in the case of felony offenses which include any  drug charge , criminal convictions will automatically result in sentences that are one year longer and potentially five years longer than if the offenses occurred off school grounds.  Assaults or abuses (even some childish pranks) directed to teachers, administrators or employees of a school will automatically carry higher charges and greater penalties than assaults on non-school personnel.  Dangerous or serious violations and violations involving drugs and weapons typically result in expulsion from school, and in Arizona, the law allows for any school to refuse admission to any student who has been expelled or is in the process of being expelled from another Arizona school (A.R.S § 15-841c). 

These are extremely serious consequences which deserve discussion, not just about your own expectations of your children’s behavior, but about the rule of law in general.  Ask your children what they think about the zero tolerance policies and other penalty prescriptions of their schools.  Ask them to talk about their rights to learn in a safe environment, free from the dangers of drugs, alcohol, abusive, threatening and disruptive behaviors.  Lead them to think about the issues inside the Code of Conduct from the perspectives of the administration, parents, students and staff.  Surely these discussions will provide positive, enriching opportunities for your family to reaffirm your values and support each other in the pursuit of each family member’s hopes and dreams for a harmonious school year.

In matters involving school, your child does retain one of his or her most important civil rights, and that is the right to representation.  Davis/Miles attorneys are experienced in all forms of criminal and administrative cases and proceedings. Having your child represented by an attorney at a crucial moment could make the difference in your child’s access to a quality education, so please don’t hesitate to call upon us should a school-related situation arise or cause you concern.

Your Family & the Law is written by Claudia Gilburd, founder of Teen Law School, Inc.  For information about Teen Law School and its informative seminars for teens and their parents, please visit www.teenlawschool.com or email cgilburd@teenlawschool.com.