By Michelle Ball, CaliforniaEducation Attorney for Students since 1995
We all know that our kids’ schools can expel or suspend a student for a myriad of items listed in state law and reflected in the school or school district handbook(s). One of the bases for such discipline is basically for damaging (or trying to damage) property.
Per California Education Code48900(f)a student may be placed up for suspension or expulsion if the student: “Caused or attempted to cause damage to school property or private property.” This may seem very simple and straightforward, but due to its wording, this section allows the schools way too much latitude to punish.
The language which is most problematic allows punishment for an “attempt” to damage property. What does this mean? What if a student tries to write on a wall but his pen is out of ink? What if a student pretends he will dump water on another student’s backpack as a prank, but pulls back at the last second: is this an attempt to damage private property despite lack of intent? What if a student takes another student’s shoe and throws it in the air. It hits the ground but is not outwardly damaged. Is this suspendable?
Another issue is what is “damage?” Is damage to property found in eating another student’s food (even a minimal amount, such as a carrot stick) at lunch? I have seen this alleged (along with theft) in a food eating scenario. What about taking some paper from another student without permission and writing on it? Is this just normal kid stuff or suspendable damage? It is very vague what damage is and how much damage must occur under this statute for an offense to occur.
How about a student who actually draws in a textbook? That student’s parent is already going to face some monetary penalty for this. Should the student, who may be 7 or 8 years old, be suspended? It seems like an overreaction, but the code arguably could allow it.
Unfortunately, this section provides way too much discretion for schools to punish for things where maybe a student should just have a “talking to,” receive a detention or simply have no punishment at all depending on the “offense.”
Sometimes it can be more clear an offense has occurred. For example, if a student takes a permanent marker and purposefully draws obscene marks all over another student’s shirt. In most cases, however, it may not be as clear.
Ultimately, the cards in evaluating damage or attempts to damage school or private property are held by school personnel. Whether administrators decide if a student should receive a suspension or expulsion for minor activity will depend on the climate at the school, the administrator’s attitude, and (hopefully) the seriousness of the activity.
It may benefit parents to discuss this section with their children lest it be used against them, as this is another potential punishment zinger for kids.
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