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School Suspension Hearings: Why are schools treating our children like criminals?

Kids do stupid things, my kids do stupid things. I can say this - I have four. They disappoint us, and say hurtful things, things that make us feel like failures, as parents, as teachers, as administrators of schools and as a society. As parents we need to remember they are children, they are learning, learning how to behave - learning the boundaries between acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior. Sometimes the unacceptable behavior is even criminal. This article is not meant to diminish or excuse a child's criminal behavior - as we have learned on far too many occasions as of late - some behavior has deadly consequences and should be punished in accord with the criminal penal code. This article is rather intended to address that behavior that we as parents, teachers and administrators need to remember is often the result of immature actions and poor decisions - by kids who have no idea about the consequences of their actions, in some cases often life altering. As an attorney whose practice has an emphasis on protecting children from the sometime harsh consequences of their immature and poorly reasoned decisions I have represented children who have seen full athletic scholarships taken from them, and likely admission to schools like Stanford, Harvard and Yale thrown to the wind. As parents it is our responsibility to protect our kids from the sometimes serious consequences that can often result in the adult world for these childish and immature transgressions - why aren't our schools and educational professionals following suit?

Clearly, the awful and heartbreaking events that took place at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 changed the trajectory of our schools approach to the discipline of our children forever. Far too often, in our efforts to keep such events from happening again, with little success, Virginia Tech (33 Killed), Newtown, Ct. (28 killed - 20 first graders age 6-7 years old) and Parkland, Fla., Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (17 killed), which happened little over a month ago, our children are punished far too excessively for often minor childhood indiscretions. Indiscretions that not that long ago were punished by after school detention or in school suspension. Our children are now often punished with permanent disciplinary records and lengthy out of school suspensions - which I dare say more often than not do far more harm to an adolescent child's social development and ability to cope, and instead often serving to merely make the child feel more shunned and ridiculed by society - but will leave that discussion to our social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health professionals, as I am merely pedigreed with a Juris Doctorate and lack the appropriate education to comment on the longer lasting effects these long term suspensions and isolation have upon our children.

As I indicated earlier in this blog, this article is in no way, shape or form an attempt to undermine or belittle our schools or the professional educators who are tasked with flagging children who suffer from depression and often times severe emotional, psychological issues which make them a danger in our schools. Instead, this article is meant to differentiate between those children and children who have made terrible decisions - like failing to wash their hands after eating a peanut butter sandwich and then allegedly threatening another child with a peanut allergy with her unwashed hands and then being treated like a criminal or the child who pulls a chair out from under another child unexpectedly causing a fracture of the child's coccyx bone and being banished from the school for the remainder of the school year or the teenager who texts a friend in the middle of the nite about what he would like to do with a young female in their class only to find out the next morning his post was screen shot and posted on social media for all to see - should this cost him his early admission to Harvard? or the child who fought back against the bully in the bathroom and because of the schools anti violence stance self defense or not, the child is expelled. This discussion is merely to discuss the consequences of our schools efforts to quash this childish behavior which often times results in our childrens futures being forever altered by childish, immature, poor decisions - made by children. It is this writers opinion that many of these childhood trangresions and poor decisions should not result in a lifetime of consequences - an athletic scholarship, admission to college. Unfortunately, the disciplinary systems currently in place, particularly in New York where I practice, do just that - by conducting Superintendent Hearings - for sometimes minor transgressions - they are creating records of these childhood trangresions and poor decisions that do cause consequences that will effect the child for his or her lifetime.

As an attorney, who has handled cases both as a prosecutor and as a criminal defense attorney for over twenty years, I will never forget the day an attorney for a school district turned to me laughing at a superintendents hearing and said "Dan, students don't have the protections that your criminal defendant's do." I will never forget thinking "why not? These are children", it should be as much the job of the attorney for the district to protect the child as it was mine, but they don't. I find the most common misconception made by parents about this process is thinking the school will protect your child - make no mistake - they will not. THIS IS AN ADVERSARIAL PROCESS. The school district is no longer acting to support either you or your child - they are bringing their resources in an adversarial way. This process will not be similar to the support you once received in parent/teacher conferences. They are your adversary and far too often parents go into these hearings unprepared, uninformed and under the mistaken belief the school will act in the best interests of the child - they will not.

As parents and educational professional we need to enact at least some safeguards to protect students from the often harsh punishments and long lasting consequences of these disciplinary hearings. The records of which follow our children well beyond these childhood transgressions and mistakes. Actions and decisions made by them as children, often causing them the need to explain themselves well into their adult lives. Actions, we as a society do everything we can to teach them are wrong - but are often perpetuated because they are children not because they are criminals - and our educators need to know better and if they don't, they should and its not their fault. Like our society, schools have been left vulnerable due to the defunding and abandonment by the government and its defunding of societies mental health needs. Hospitals that were once filled with patients who required its assistance are shuttered. Unfortunately, our schools and the professionals who work there are now our front lines in this battle. Our schools are often the first place the government intertwines intimately with the lives of its governed and its often the most important, but the knee jerk reaction of our schools to over react and banish children from these first lines of defense are often misguided and often times do more harm to the child then good. Pushing them further away from resources and peer socialization is not the answer and can often come back to us with devastating effects.

Daniel Belano, Esq. is a former prosecutor from Suffolk County, NY, who has now been in private practice for over twenty years. His practice focuses on criminal defense and the defense of children in school discipline hearings.

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