Education Law

When Can Schools Expel Students?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Expelling a student should be a discipline of last resort, but it’s the first choice for some misconduct—like bringing a gun to school.

If school authorities are threatening to expel you or your child, it’s important to understand how the process works, what could happen, and what you can do to protect your rights. The details vary from state to state, but some general principles apply around the country.

Suspension versus Expulsion

School disciplinary rules often lump out-of-school suspension and expulsion together, at the bottom of the list of options for punishing misbehaving students. Sometimes, the same conduct could lead to either form of discipline. But there’s a big difference between being suspended and being expelled. Students who are suspended can’t come to classes for a temporary period of time—usually just for a few days. Some states limit suspensions to 10 days, while other states allow them for longer periods. When students are expelled, they’re completely barred from the school—generally until the end of the semester, the end of the school year, or longer.

Expulsion is clearly the most serious kind of punishment a school can use. Students who’ve been expelled may find it nearly impossible to catch up in school, and they’re far more likely to drop out. Even if they don’t, the expulsion stays on their school record, following them to other educational institutions.

What Can Get You Expelled?

In light of the grave, long-term consequences of expulsion, you might think that this form of discipline would be a last resort, after school officials have tried everything else to correct children’s behavior. But that’s not necessarily the case, depending on what the student did wrong.

In general, it’s up to the states to decide what types of misconduct can get students expelled from their schools. But a few federal laws set nationwide rules for school discipline. One of those, the Gun-Free Schools Act, says that any student found with a gun at a public school must be expelled for at least a full year. In the wake of this law, many states created “zero tolerance” policies that called for mandatory suspensions or expulsions for other wrongdoing like bringing drugs to school.

Some other examples of misconduct that that can get you expelled in at least some states:

  • possessing or giving someone else any kind of weapon (including a toy gun) or dangerous object
  • giving other students over-the-counter medications like caffeine pills (for example, see Wagner-Garay v. Fort Wayne Community Schools, 255 F.Supp.2d 915 (N.D. Ind. 2003))
  • hurting or threatening to hurt another student or a teacher
  • making terroristic threats, like writing a note that says there’s a bomb in the school (see Arthur A. v. Stroudsburg Area School Dist., 141 F.Supp.2d 502 (M.D. Penn. 2001))
  • brushing your hand against a teacher’s buttocks (see Brown v. Plainfield Community Consol. Dist. 202, 522 F.Supp.2d 1068 (N.D. Ill 2007))
  • hacking the school’s computer system (see M.T. v. Central York School Dist., 937 A.2d 538 (Pa. 2007))
  • harassing or bullying other students (including sexual harassment and cyberbullying), or
  • continually defying teachers or other school officials.

Fair Procedures for Expulsion

State laws and local school district policies set the requirements for discipline proceedings in public schools. But all schools must meet federal standards that protect students’ constitutional right to defend themselves in a fair hearing before they’re excluded from public education. (For more details, see our article on students’ rights in school disciplinary proceedings.)

Special Rules for Students With Disabilities

A federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) includes special protections for students with disabilities who are facing expulsion. IDEA gives these students the right to free, appropriate public education. It also sets limits on when and how schools can change a special education student’s placement or services. Because expulsion from school means a change in placement, schools must follow special procedures before they expel these students. Among other requirements, they have to hold a hearing to decide if the misconduct was directly related to the student’s disability. If it was, the special education team must take certain steps, like developing or modifying a behavioral intervention plan.

During and After Expulsion

When students have been expelled, the school may assign them to attend alternative education programs designed to address kids with behavior problems. Some states require schools to refer expelled students to these programs. Several courts have ruled that schools didn’t deny students’ right to public education by expelling them if they were allowed to attend alternative education programs. (For example, see Swindle v. Livingston Parish School Bd., 655 F.3d 386 (5th Cir. 2011).) However, some courts have held that schools didn’t violate students’ constitutional equal protection rights by expelling them without providing alternate educational benefits, because the students were allowed to return to school after their expulsion. (See In re R.M., 102 p.3D 868 (Sup. Ct. Wyo. 2004).)

After students have been expelled, they may be able to apply to private schools, online programs, or public schools in other districts (as nonresidents). But those schools can—and often do—turn them down. And some states explicitly prevent expelled students from enrollment in any other public school in the state.

Even after the expulsion period is over, students may have to apply to be reenrolled in school and go through a review process.

When Should You Talk to a Lawyer?

If your child has been accused of misconduct that could lead to being expelled, you’ll want to know how to approach the discipline proceedings and protect your child’s rights. If you don’t take part in the hearing, you could lose your right to challenge the expulsion. An attorney who specializes in education law should be able to explain the local rules and help you through the process. If your child has disabilities, consider consulting an attorney who’s experienced in special education law.

Go to our main school discipline FAQ page.

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