Can A Bystander Be Suspended From School?



Last Updated on April 10, 2021 by Michelle Ball

By Michelle Ball, California Education Attorney for Students since 1995

What does it take to issue a valid school suspension?  Does a student have to DO something, or can they just be near someone who does something?  Over the years, I have seen bystanders (aka witnesses) punished by schools when they did nothing but watch others do wrong.  When are students who witness a wrong done by another guilty of an offense which can be properly punished by a school? 

The California Education Code lists out all the potential areas for which a student may be suspended or expelled.  It also lists out things that schools CANNOT punish students for.  Things not listed as suspension-eligible offenses are also not suspendable.  Schools are limited by these state laws, voted in by our legislature.  Of course, the codes can be vague, and cover a LOT of areas of alleged wrong, from arranging a drug sale, to possession of nicotine products.  

But what about bystanders or witnesses to an event?  What about the kid who watches as someone sells drugs to another but says nothing?  Or, the students who run to a fight and just stand there?  Unfortunately, sometimes schools punish students by association, believing as they were there, that they participated in the wrongful action.  

If a school validates a student did not actually commit a wrong, most just obtain their statement about the events and don’t suspend the innocent student.  

Some, however, do.

A prime example I have seen is a school which suspended students observing a fight.  It seems that the school morphed a kid standing near a fight into an offender, claiming willful defiance.  I disagree strongly that standing near someone committing an actual prohibited act makes someone guilty of a wrong.  No suspension should issue when a student does not knowingly DO something prohibited.

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Under Education Code section 48900(k), students may be suspended for willful defiance or disruption, but only if they are in ninth through twelfth grade, and it is highly questionable whether standing near a fight is defiant.  This in fact could be protected speech.  

These types of alleged bystander offenses should  be challenged by parents.  

The only disclaimer here, is the fact that California courts have sided with the schools, even for offenses which don’t “fit” in delineated suspendable offenses, such as the restriction of students’ ability to wear an American Flag shirt on Cinco de Mayo, to prevent alleged gang issues.  So, although I see no grounds for bystander offenses, the courts sometimes surprise you, supporting an almost dictatorial control over all kids under a school’s authority.