Last Updated on July 28, 2022 by Michelle Ball
By Michelle Ball, Sacramento California Expulsion, Special Education, sports/CIF, College, Education and School Attorney/Lawyer for Students since 1995
There are a multitude of bases for student discipline. One of those bases involves fighting (aka “mutual combat”), threats, and/or physical violence to another. Such conduct may or may not get a student suspended or placed up for expulsion.
California Law on Fighting and School Punishment
Per California Education Code 48900(a)(1) for a student to be suspended or expelled for this type of conduct, they must have:
Caused, attempted to cause, or threatened to cause physical injury to another person, or
Willfully used force or violence upon the person of another, except in self-defense.
What is Causing or Threatening Physical Injury in Schools?
What does causing or threatening physical injury mean in schools? It means any student fighting, making threats to hurt a student or teacher (even vague ones), or responding to another student in a physical way. Any of these scenarios can get a student punished in elementary, middle, or high school.
Fighting in schools, unfortunately may not be what you think, as the schools deem any student responding physically to an attack as being involved in that fight. Rarely does a student get the benefit of the doubt. If the student hit someone or struck another, regardless of who started it, the school deems the student guilty of fighting or mutual combat.
What About Self Defense?
Although self defense is listed as an excuse which should prevent discipline, self defense is rarely accepted as a reason to NOT punish a student. However, if a student who is assaulted runs away to the office, to an adult, or curls up in a fetal position to take the beating… they may be able to avoid suspension or expulsion for fighting. I am not being sarcastic.
All Physical Contact is Mutual Combat
For example, if a student is hit by another student, and hits back, the schools usually deems this “mutual combat,” and suspends both kids, regardless of who started it. The insertion of the words “except in
self-defense,” is very confusing as schools usually ignore this phrase, and suspend students if they engage in any form of physical altercation, and even if the student has no other choice (e.g. they are attacked).
Group Beating = Self Defense?
There are times when schools may allow the self defense “excuse.” For example, when it is glaringly obvious, such as with a gang beating, maybe they will not suspend the victim when trying to survive. But for the most part in a two student battle, both students will be punished for fighting regardless of who started it.
Threat of Physical Harm Could Lead To Suspension or Expulsion
Additionally, the mere “threat” of physical harm can get a student suspended or expelled. A “hit list” listing students or teachers, threats to students or school personnel on social media to blow them up or shoot them, drawings of guns and destruction, or even writing threatening or violent essays, can land a student in the discipline hot seat.
Free Speech Rights? Not Really
First Amendment free speech issues may arise, but schools usually ignore such rights if they exist at all, claiming an immediate and disruptive threat. Threatening student speech is not protected speech.
Who Decides If a Student Will Be Suspended or Put up for Expulsion for Fighting?
Whether a student actually will be suspended or recommended for expulsion for fighting is up to the school staff, such as the vice principal or principal. Sometimes if a fight is rough enough, school staff will consult the school district on what to do next on student punishment.
Check the Student Handbook and Policies
Usually in the student handbook will be a school discipline grid with a list of crimes and the possible punishment for each. With fighting, threats, or other physical harm, the schools will usually allow suspension OR expulsion even on a first offense.
Zero Tolerance of Violent Student Interactions
In the “good old days,” students could probably defend themselves for real and not be suspended, but in our “zero tolerance” world, this is not the case. Students are expected to take a beating or run away so they won’t be in discipline trouble. Unfortunately in the heat of the moment, when a student’s head is getting smashed in, they don’t often think of the lack of sympathy they may get from the student office. Survival instincts take over.
Alas, no one ever said that school discipline was logical or reasonable, and I would certainly never make that claim.
[Originally published 5/5/11]
Michelle Ball is a Sacramento expulsion and suspension lawyer helping students with school discipline issues. Being an attorney in California, she can assist from Tahoe to San Diego, Roseville, Auburn, Vacaville, Ukiah and throughout California.