Georgia school districts are on track this calendar year to see a sharp uptick in the number of student discipline decisions being reversed on appeal by the Georgia State Board of Education.
While each case is different, the reversals are often a result of districts committing avoidable procedural mistakes before and during the appeals process.
So far this year, the state board has reversed or remanded 10 student discipline cases for additional hearing testimony, most involving serious offenses such as threats and physical harm to students and teachers. There were seven such reversals in all of 2022; in 2021, there were five.
Having your local board decision reversed can be frustrating. With school safety concerns on the rise, it is critical for districts to get discipline cases right. Cases sent to a hearing involve serious incidents that end with students facing lengthy suspensions or expulsion. A reversal by the state board can result in those students returning to school soon after they were found by the local board to have committed the offense.
Fortunately for school districts, these reversals are often avoidable. Here’s a look at the most common mistakes school districts are making before and during the appeals process and ways they can more proactively avoid the problems altogether.
Most Common Errors Made by Districts
- Misidentifying charges the student is facing: If a district does not correctly list the rule the student supposedly violated, the state board can say the student isn’t guilty of violating a rule that he or she was not charged with in the first place.
- Constitutionally vague policies: School districts must ensure that their code of conduct rules are clearly defined and/or explained within the code. If a student, for example, is charged with making threats, the local school board’s policy should clearly state an objective guideline for students to determine which communications are threats.
- Failure to enter proper evidence into the record at the discipline hearing: All copies of applicable policies and the substance of those policies should be part of the official record. If a student does not know the contents of the policy he was accused of violating, then he has no way to defend himself and the state board can label this as a prejudicial error. Plus, the state board needs the entirety of a policy to be able to determine whether the student’s conduct meets the elements of an offense.
- Lack of off-campus provisions: Consider including code of conduct rules that extend beyond the school campus, in accordance with Georgia law. In some circumstances, students can be disciplined for incidents that happen off campus. District rules need to include behavior that happens on and off school property, in accordance with Georgia law.
Steps to Be More Proactive
The reversals from the state board make it clear that districts can avoid these outcomes by following a few key steps.
For one, districts should review their code of conduct policies. Are your policies in line with Georgia law and recent state Board of Education decisions? Does the policy say what you intended it to say? When was the last time it was updated?
Some districts update their policies every three or four years; others wait as long as 10 years. That’s simply not enough. Policies need to stay current to match today’s education environment and any updated legal requirements.
Districts should also check whether the code of conduct policy that’s listed on their website matches the one that’s sent home with students. Consistency is key, especially when discipline cases end up at a hearing.
Districts should also carefully review their hearing notice letters to ensure they are compliant with Georgia law. Georgia statutes spell out several requirements for these letters. Failure to include all required language and notices in a hearing notice letter can result in reversal or remand of your discipline decision.
Districts should ensure they are providing adequate notice of discipline hearings. Failure to provide a student adequate notice of their discipline hearing can result in reversal or remand at the State Board. It doesn’t suffice to send a letter home the night before a scheduled hearing.
Districts should also make sure they are entering the necessary evidence as well as meeting the burden of proof during a discipline hearing. The person presenting at the hearing should review the district rule or policy violated by the student and ensure that the district has sufficient direct evidence of all required elements to prove the student’s violation.
We strongly recommend that school districts have a checklist for all elements of the discipline process.
For more information about legally compliant discipline policies and procedures, contact us or your regular Parker Poe contact. You can also subscribe to our latest alerts and insights here.