"Tribunals," or disciplinary hearings in the public school system are held when a child has violated a school rule. When the school is considering suspending or expelling a student, the student has a right to be heard at a hearing, often called a “tribunal” hearing. At these hearings, evidence is presented by witnesses at the school such as other teachers or administration, or students. The child is also asked to speak and give their side of the story. Once all of the information has been presented, the hearing officer will decide if the child has broken the rule. I refer to this part of the hearing as “phase one.” My goal when representing a student in this phase of the hearing is to ensure that I prevent them and their families from making any kind of statement that could negatively impact a pending or potential juvenile court case. While the child may ultimately decide to take responsibility, this decision should be made only after they have seen all of the evidence and had the opportunity to fully weigh their choices and any future impact.
In the second phase of the hearing, the hearing officer will decide the consequences of the violation. While the first phase of the hearing may feel like an uphill battle, this second phase is ripe with the opportunity for a student to “make a case” for their future at the school. At this time, the student may present information to mitigate the consequences of a violation. When translated in Latin, “mitigate” means “to soften,” and I love this description. The student is not making a denial or focusing on the minutiae of the negative situation, but presenting information to show who they are, and what they have accomplished. By presenting this dimension of the student’s life, the rough edges of the incident can be softened and the hearing officer may be swayed to make a decision that is based on the student and not merely the incident.
In a practical sense, when I represent a student at a disciplinary hearing, I focus heavily on gathering and preparing as much information as I can to show the hearing officer. The school will present the student’s complete academic and disciplinary records, but the student is responsible for providing other helpful information. I often work with the family to secure other witnesses who can talk about the child’s character. Some examples include coaches, church leaders, or other members of the community. In addition, documentation, such as awards, certificates and other paper evidence can be presented at the hearing (see a list of suggestions below). I have found that parents can feel very nervous in this high-emotion and often intimidating setting, so my role is to take this pressure of the parents to present the information in the most helpful and persuasive manner possible.
Because school disciplinary hearings can be challenging for both the parent and student alike, I recommend being proactive and planning ahead. As families prepare for an upcoming school board hearing, I offer the following tips. I wish you the best of luck as you move forward.
Kathryn Boortz has a passion for working with youth and their families. She is the founder of Boortz Law, a law firm that focuses on juvenile defense.