Last Updated on May 5, 2021 by Michelle Ball
By Michelle Ball, California Education Attorney for Students since 1995
School discipline can be imposed even if a student is innocent. If an elementary, junior high or high school 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?
School Administrators Have Unique Viewpoints
Schools view student guilt and innocence in a weird way. As a result, an innocent student may actually be punished even if he did nothing.
This is largely due to the strange viewpoints school administrators take of students who are merely accused of wrongdoing.
School administrators don’t think like the typical person. Whether an elementary, junior high, or high school student actually did it or not for school purposes does not depend on the facts or the student’s actual actions. Once the allegation is made, often schools believe the student “did it” regardless.
What Is “Innocent” In School Discipline?
Let’s talk about what “did it” and “didn’t do it” means in the context of school discipline, suspension and expulsion.
Initial guilt or innocence in school discipline usually depends only on the accusation. It is not whether a high school or elementary student actually did something- it is did someone say he did it.
Schools believe accusers. They also believe that every student will lie when accused. As such, they rarely believe any accused student is innocent, even when they are.
I am not sure there ever is an “innocent” kid in public schools according to school administrators. All students “did it,” if they were accused per school logic.
If the Group Says the Student Did It, She Did It
In school punishment, is it is often a numbers game. Do more students say a student committed the discipline offense or not?
A student accused by multiple students of doing something like fighting or sexually assaulting them, really “did it,” as far as the school is concerned. If four kids say that Jerome punched them, or Patty touched their privates, then Jerome and Patty did it and should receive school discipline, usually suspension or expulsion. It does not matter what Jerome or Patty say they did.
This, unfortunately, is the way school punishment works. Schools inevitably believe the accusers, and the more accusers the more “true” a discipline allegation is.
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. For example, sexual battery or harassment, plotting to shoot students, bullying, and other wild allegations leading to school discipline.
It is not far-fetched to imagine that a disciplined student could have been targeted by other students who concocted stories of wrongdoing. For example, a female student who did not get the attention she wanted from a boy could allege wrongdoing by the male student who shunned her and get her friends to go along with her story. A student who did not make the varsity football team as quarterback may target the student who did.
Sadly, these strategies often work in the school setting and cause innocent students to be disciplined, suspended or even expelled.
Equal Numbers of Students Say She Did or Did Not Do It?
If there are students on both sides (some saying the student is innocent, others saying he/she is guilty), the school inevitably ignores the ones who say the student is innocent and discipline.
It is as if there is an “opt for discipline” button in all schools, even when there are two sides that are balanced equally. The reasonable doubt does not get weighed in favor of the accused student.
Did Only One Person Say Student Did It, But Multiple Others Say She Did Not?
If every student states the accused student did not do it, and only one says he did- the student may be able to wiggle out of the accusation and not face school discipline. Many schools will still push forward with punishment.
Staff Word Is Final in School Discipline
If a school staff member is a witness to 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.
He Who Speaks First Is Believed
Another unfortunate problem in school discipline matters is that the student who reports first wins. What does this mean?
Say “Student A,” is talking about shooting up the school to another student, and then Student A realizes he may get caught. If Student A runs to the school and flips the script saying the person listening to him was actually the one talking about shooting people, Student A becomes a hero. The other kid, who is 100% innocent then faces suspension, expulsion or both.
No matter what proof may be levied after the wild false story of Student A, the school can have a hard time later reversing their support of Student A, now a “hero,” not a student terrorist.
School Statements to Public May Ensure Student Discipline
Often schools issue statements to the community prematurely about student allegations (e.g. school shooting allegations). Schools often have not gathered all the evidence and police may also be in the process of documenting some offenses. Rather than later admitting their statement was wrong, or the student should not have received discipline, schools often dig their heels in, thinking they must save face with the public. Unfortunately, this may be at the expense of the innocent student who was suspended or faces school expulsion.
Rigged Student Punishment System
All of these viewpoints add up to the reason why truly innocent students may be punished via suspension, expulsion or other school discipline measures on a daily basis. The school discipline system is a tad bit rigged.
Education Attorney for Students
LAW OFFICE OF MICHELLE BALL
717 K Street, Suite 228
Sacramento, CA 95814
Please see my disclaimer. This is legal information, not legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is formed by this posting. This blog may not be reproduced without permission from the author and proper attribution of authorship. This blog may not reflect the current state of the law.