Northern Virginia Attorney for School Disciplinary Proceedings
Alene Sprano is a highly experienced attorney providing legal assistance and representation during School Board Administrative Disciplinary Hearings for students in Fairfax, Prince William, and Arlington Counties.
The beginning of each school year can mean a fresh new start and a renewed sense of excitement for both students and parents. However, some students may be experiencing challenges at school which are difficult for them to deal with. These may include special educational needs, emotional or mental problems such as anxiety and depression, academic difficulties, substance abuse issues, or social problems such as bullying or negative peer groups. Any or all of these can sometimes contribute to behavioral issues or alleged acts of misconduct, and as a result such students often end up facing significant disciplinary actions resulting in serious consequences.
If your child is facing school disciplinary proceedings in Northern Virginia, …
The process typically starts with a phone call from a school official, informing you that your son or daughter is in some sort of trouble, and asking you to come to the school to pick them up and take them home. Most often, you are initially told that they have been suspended for a short period of time – 5 days, but this can be followed up by an additional 5 day suspension and a more formal notification letter letting you know that the school is moving forward with disciplinary proceedings. This means that your child’s conduct has been referred to the Division Superintendent who will determine if additional consequences should be imposed or if there are special circumstances that might warrant a different outcome. Your child will remain suspended in order for a disciplinary hearing to convene.
Do I need to hire an attorney to represent my child in school disciplinary proceedings?
It is important to understand that expulsion and other school disciplinary hearings are not held in a court of law with a judge presiding. The rules of evidence that apply in the courtroom are not applicable in this context. Nevertheless, the United States Supreme Court has recognized that there are important liberty interests at stake in these proceedings, so the Constitution does require that certain Due Process rights are protected. First and foremost among these is the right to an attorney.
Parents should contact a lawyer immediately upon learning of the alleged misconduct at school in order to start preparing for the disciplinary process. There are many things a good lawyer can do to influence the result of a school disciplinary hearing. It is important to make sure that both you and your child have a thorough understanding of the entire process. A lawyer may be able to advise important steps you can take to help mitigate the situation. There are documents you are entitled to that will be utilized at the hearing – including the details of the allegations made against your child – that must be immediately requested. There are records that must be secured if the child has been previously engaged in mental health counseling or drug or alcohol treatment. The entire disciplinary and academic record of the child must be reviewed, and both the student and parents must be prepared for what to expect at the hearing itself.
The school systems of Fairfax County, Arlington County and Prince William County utilize the Students Rights and Responsibilities Guidelines in conducting disciplinary proceedings. These guidelines govern the levels of intervention and consequences depending on the specific circumstances of the case, taking into consideration the conduct which occurred as well as the student’s past disciplinary intervention record. A referral to the Division Superintendent is discretionary for certain prohibited conduct, but mandatory for other serious violations. Families must understand the conduct alleged by the school as well as the possible outcomes and alternative placements available within the county. The student’s due process rights need to be protected at the disciplinary hearings, and quality representation will assist in keeping the child in school, arguing for reassignment or a transfer to another traditional high school within the county, placement in an alternative school, or withdrawal from school to allow for placement at a private school in lieu of the recommendation of expulsion to the School Board.
There are two components to the school disciplinary hearing process. The first is simply fact-finding. The hearing officer will gather information and make a factual determination as to what actually happened. Witness testimony will be provided by the school and your child will be asked questions, or provide an account of the events. This is a critical time in the hearing because depending on the likelihood of criminal charges or a pending criminal prosecution, legal advice is needed to determine what if anything the child should answer concerning his or her involvement. Attorney Sprano will assist during this portion of the hearing by questioning the school personnel and witness statements to challenge the factual basis for the allegations where appropriate, as well as providing guidance on when and how to respond.
If the hearing examiner determines that misconduct has occurred and the code of conduct has been violated, then the focus will move on to a review of the student’s record with respect to attendance, grades, SOL scores, teacher reports, and prior disciplinary history. The School Superintendent designee considers all the factors presented to determine the result, which can range from a referral to the School Board for expulsion, to placement at an alternative school, reassignment to another county school, or immediate reinstatement to the base school. An attorney can influence this decision by offering various alternative outcomes in lieu of expulsion to the hearing examiner.
Attorney Alene Sprano has been highly successful in supporting families throughout the School Disciplinary Process, including Referral to the Division Superintendent, Manifestation Determination Reviews, School Disciplinary Hearings with Short Term, Long Term Suspension and Reassignment recommendations, and Expulsion Hearings, while ensuring the child’s essential Due Process rights are protected.
As an experienced lawyer who understands the school disciplinary process, Alene Sprano can help walk you and your child through the steps to prepare to secure the best outcome possible. Each factual situation alleged by the school is different. Each child’s school record varies with respect to grades, attendance, and prior disciplinary conduct. Each outcome will differ, but each student deserves the benefit of an experienced school advocate who can present the child’s case in a way that personalizes their unique qualities, goals, hopes and dreams, to afford him or her the best possible outcome in the disciplinary process.
For more information on the importance of having legal representation in these proceedings, this article by the American Bar Association may be helpful: “A Painful Case: Do Parents Need Lawyers for School Disciplinary Hearings?”
Disciplinary Proceedings for Students with Disabilities
If your child has a documented disability or receives special education accommodations as part of an IEP or 504, he or she is entitled to additional legal protections. The school will be required to hold a Manifestation Determination Hearing (also called an MDH or 10-day hearing) if the child may be removed from school for more than 10 days. It is vital to have an attorney who has a full understanding of the student’s rights during this process.
Parents are often told that the Manifestation Determination hearing is a required part of the process, wherein the family will come into the school to discuss the alleged conduct and the child’s IEP or 504. However, the family is typically not fully informed about how this meeting can significantly impact the disciplinary process outcomes and limit the child’s placement options. The student’s team is required to meet to review the alleged conduct in light of his or her disability. The school team typically wants a statement or to question the child about specifics of the alleged behavior. An attorney can help during this meeting to protect the child’s due process rights and to counsel the child as to what is appropriate to answer. The team must determine if the conduct in question was caused by, or a direct result of the student’s disability and if the conduct was a result of the school’s inability to provide the needed services. If the school answers yes to either question, then the disability is found to be a causal connection and a manifestation of the child’s disability, and the student’s placement cannot be changed.
Many families forgo the benefit of legal counsel for this hearing despite the great benefit it can have for the child in the process. Manifestation Determination hearings are unique and require an experienced attorney to assist the family in order to establish a link between the student’s disability and the alleged act of misconduct if the school is recommending a change in the student’s placement.
Attorney Sprano is often able to speak with school counselors, administrators, teachers, and advisors prior to the hearing to explore the student’s conduct as it relates to his or her disability. She will also review IEP’s and other school documentation, as well as outside sources such as mental health records, to present a case that the alleged misconduct is a direct result of the child’s disability, or a failure of the school, and therefore the conduct warrants a return to school with a revised IEP or 504, rather than the removal from school or a change in placement. In several cases, she has been successful in getting students returned to their base schools instead of expelled, as a result of establishing the causation needed in MDR hearings.
If an attorney is not utilized and the child’s disability is found to not be a result of their disability, then the school can move forward and treat the child similar to a nondisabled student and impose the same available consequences. Thus, it is vital to have legal assistance to navigate this process to develop a record to assure the students rights are protected. The time between the initial call from the school and the various hearings is very short, so it is important to seek assistance right away without any delay.
More information on the Rights of Students with Disabilities in Virginia:
Virginia Department of Education: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Student Discipline Policies and Practices
Managing the Criminal Consequences of Student Misbehavior
In many cases the behavior giving rise to the school disciplinary proceedings may also be charged criminally in juvenile court. Sometimes the criminal consequences may be even more severe and long lasting than whatever action the school takes. Whenever the alleged conduct might also be a violation of the criminal law, it is absolutely critical to have a lawyer who has expertise in both venues. Attorney Alene Sprano is not only experienced in representing children in school disciplinary proceedings, she has been representing juvenile defendants in criminal court for almost 25 years. In the late 1990s she was the head of the juvenile court defense section of the Fairfax Public Defender’s Office, and has continued to fight for the rights of children and teenagers accused of juvenile delinquency ever since.
The school disciplinary process typically overlaps with the criminal prosecution with respect to fact finding and discovery. Having a legal advocate handle both matters will significantly enhance the chances of more successful outcomes. Attorney Sprano routinely provides representation in the school process in conjunction with the criminal prosecution. This dual representation allows for a comprehensive discovery process, including the unique ability to question school personnel and review witness statements prior to the criminal court date. Unfortunately, all too often families forgo retaining an attorney for the school disciplinary proceedings. As a result, the student’s Fifth Amendment rights are not protected during that process, and they often end up making additional incriminating statements that are used against them in criminal court.
School disciplinary hearings can involve serious criminal allegations such as conspiracy to commit murder, threats over the airways (including social media bullying), sexual assault, indecent exposure, assault, fighting, bullying, theft crimes, breaking and entering, possession of drugs and alcohol, distribution of drugs, possession of weapons at school, and destruction of property. Even when criminal offenses take place outside of school they can sometimes result in the student facing both a referral for a school disciplinary hearing as well as a criminal prosecution.
Juveniles need the benefit of a dedicated, experienced and highly qualified attorney for the juvenile court criminal proceedings as well as the school disciplinary hearings. Alene Sprano has the experienced needed to handle both matters to ensure your child’s rights are protected and his or her future prospects are not unjustly damaged by a juvenile mistake or lack of judgment. You can read some of her reviews in these and other cases here: https://www.avvo.com/attorneys/22030-va-alene-sprano-1811097.html#client_reviews
If your child is facing school disciplinary proceedings in Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William, or anywhere else in Northern Virginia, contact Alene Sprano today for a free consultation. (E-mail Alene)
Keywords: school disciplinary proceedings lawyers expulsion hearing attorneys FCPS school board child trouble school expelled suspended public schools fairfax arlington prince william alexandria