Last Updated on October 17, 2023 by Michelle Ball
By Michelle Ball, Sacramento California Expulsion, Special Education, sports/CIF, College, Education and School Attorney/Lawyer for Students since 1995
School discipline can be imposed even if a student is innocent. When a student is up for school punishment, such as suspension or expulsion, everyone presumes they “did it.” But, what if the student did not? Why do schools suspend innocent students?
Heavy Reliance on Student Statements
School discipline depends very heavily on witness statements rather than hard evidence. This is a problem for students, as guilt then may only depend on what everyone SAID happened.
And, who are the witnesses to offenses? Mostly minor students.
Some problems may arise as minor students may report what they heard others say happened as fact, even though they did not witness the events. Students can also be easily influenced by adults (for example the Vice Principal), other students, and/or by their belief they need to please others. This can impact what students say.
Students can also exaggerate what happened to the detriment of the student being punished, or even for dramatic effect. A slap could actually have been a fake hit. Or, a student allegedly sneaking around to do wrong, may never have snuck around at all…
This can result in innocent students having their actions wrongly reported.
School Administrators Have Unique Viewpoints
Once school staff have those witness statements- maybe three, or sometimes even one, that say a student did it, their job is often done. They believe they can punish.
It is not unusual for the accused to be called in last, and told they are being suspended based on the “investigation” that has been done. Little does a student know how flimsy the “evidence” is as it may not even be shared with them.
Years of not having to really prove something happened can make Vice Principals feel they don’t have to prove much to punish.
If the VP gets a few students to say that Shaniqua did it, then she did. He is done. He can suspend Shaniqua and be done with it.
School Investigations Can Be Weak
Parents are often outraged that there is no real proof in a suspension matter. Why is this? Because investigation standards are not clear, nor are there good guidelines or training.
The VP can do their “investigation” and end it when the VP wants. It could take ten minutes or twenty-five. There could be one statement or twelve. It varies depending on the person and school involved.
Will the VP call in witnesses on both sides? Maybe. Maybe not. It is up to the VP. Accused students may report witnesses to their innocence, but maybe the VP decides not to interview them.
School administrators may even coerce confessions from students, as it makes their suspension or expulsion investigations go faster. Once they have a confession, coerced or not, their job is done. They can suspend or expel. And the innocent may be punished.
What Is “Guilty” In School Discipline?
School staff don’t typically believe a student’s statement that they “did not do it.” Schools believe every student will lie when accused. As such, they rarely believe any accused student is innocent, even if they are.
As they ignore the accused (unless they confess), guilt comes from those pesky student statements. Guilt is not whether a student actually did something- it is did someone say he did it.
School staff believe accusers. It makes their jobs easier. It makes their investigations faster.
Some Students Can Purposefully Lie and Be Believed
I have seen students (in groups or individually) plot and falsely accuse another student of something the student never did, ending in an expulsion recommendation. For example, sexual battery or harassment, plotting to shoot students, bullying, and other wild allegations, leading to school discipline.
It is not farfetched to imagine that a disciplined student could be targeted by other students who concocted stories of wrongdoing. For example, a jealous student could allege wrongdoing by someone to get them in trouble, getting friends to go along with the story. A student who did not make the varsity football team as quarterback may target the student who did.
Sadly, these strategies may work in the school setting due to school staff believing most reports of wrongdoing, and cause innocent students to be disciplined, suspended or even expelled.
Staff Word Is Final in School Discipline
If a school staff member says they witnessed a suspendable offense, well, I think you know how that goes.
School employees win over a student’s pleas of innocence, even if the school employee may be lying. Student discipline, including suspension and expulsion, can follow staff accusations.
Those Who Speak First Are Believed
Another unfortunate problem in school discipline matters is that the student who reports first wins. What does this mean?
Say Casey is talking about shooting up the school to Jeremy. Casey then realizes he may get caught. If Casey runs to the school and flips the script saying Jeremy was actually the one talking about shooting people, Casey becomes a hero. Jeremy, who is 100% innocent, then faces suspension, expulsion or both.
Public Statements May Lock In Student Discipline
Often schools issue statements to the community prematurely about student situations (e.g. school shooting allegations). Early on, schools may not have gathered all the evidence and police may also be in the process of documenting some offenses.
If a school sends out a statement that a student did it, but later realizes they did not, rather than admitting their early statement was wrong, schools often continue forward with discipline.
It seems school administrators think they must save face even if they were wrong. Unfortunately, this may be at the expense of the innocent student who was suspended or faces school expulsion.
Rigged Student Punishment System
Is the school discipline system rigged? Maybe. It seems to me that schools are not careful enough in their investigations and that they too often jump the gun and believe the first reporter.
Each matter should be investigated properly with an objective viewpoint and an open mind, and first reporters should not just be believed because they told first.
Are All Suspended Students Innocent?
No, not all students are wrongly suspended. In fact, most probably are not. However, that does not mean that the current system in public schools of relying very heavily on student statements to prove guilt is the best way to go.
Most parents are shocked when they see what comprises a school “investigation.” It is not, as one would believe, like it would be in a real courtroom, where actual proof of what occurred must be demonstrated with hard facts. No, it is not like that at all.
Once parents see student statements (false or true) are like gold to schools, they will understand just what they are dealing with and why school punishment can sometimes be so very very wrong.
Schools can totally miss the real culprit and hit the innocent. No, not always, but enough times that it definitely matters, particularly to the students caught in the crossfire.
Student lawyer Michelle Ball helps families across California. As an attorney specializing in education law, she helps parents across California, in her town of Sacramento, as well as in Davis, Auburn, Roseville, Fair Oaks, Folsom, Natomas, Woodland, Stockton, Los Angeles the Bay Area and many more California locations.