A New School Year – A New Approach to Discipline?

Student-Dicipline

Detentions, suspensions and expulsions are all necessary by-products of students’ misbehaviour. But imposing a discipline policy can cause angst for all involved and affected.  When punishing a student for their misconduct, a principal must fully follow all the rules, policies and procedures they have in place, to the letter. Having a clear and accessible policy promotes certainty and understanding amongst the school community about how and when, it may be imposed. When a principal is deciding whether or not to discipline a student from their school for any reason, they must accurately follow school policy and procedure, through a fair and transparent process, and also ensure that they are compliant with any prescribed requirements of state and territory legislation.  The recent release of a report by the Victorian Ombudsman (Ombudsman) into the rate of expulsions in Victorian government schools sheds light on failures in the government sector to effectively follow discipline policies and there are lessons for all schools from its findings.

The Report

In 2017, the Ombudsman released its report titled: Investigation into Victorian government school expulsions (the Report).  The key purpose of the Report was to find out whether expulsions at government schools complied with the requirements set by Ministerial Order No. 625 (Ministerial Order). Expulsion occurs when a student is permanently removed, as a last resort, from the school and is required to attend another school or educational institution due to extremely or repeated inappropriate behaviours displayed by the student.  In 2016, 278 students were formally expelled in Victoria. Of particular concern to the Ombudsman, were a number of instances where children in the early years of primary school were being expelled and the Ombudsman found it difficult to conceive a circumstance where a primary school child’s behaviour could be of a magnitude that expulsion was the solution.

What the Ombudsman found was a “confused and incomplete picture.” There were gaps in the expulsion reports and 2016 data they assessed did not answer any questions with certainty. However, what has been brought to light is that two-thirds of expulsions recorded failed to comply with the Ministerial Order, with the lack of information suggesting that this number may well be considerably higher.  The Ombudsman found serious concerns as to whether principals are following the requirements under the Ministerial Order and Department of Education and Training policies and procedures on expulsion, as a majority of expulsions did not meet the requirements under the Ministerial Order.

Although the Ministerial Order does not apply to non-government schools, the findings that principals didn’t comply with it are interesting and raise questions as to why.  Is it because the principals reacted with emotion or frustration and felt that expulsion was necessary for a certain student, despite the requirements of the Ministerial Order?  Or was it because the school’s discipline policies or procedures were non-compliant with the Ministerial Order in the first place?  Regardless of the reasons for the findings, what is clear from the Report is the need to ensure that students facing expulsion are granted procedural fairness.  The Ombudsman stated: “A young person at risk of expulsion ought to have an equal or greater expectation of protection than an adult facing potential termination of employment, not less.”

Registration Requirements for the Discipline of Students

Although non-government schools are not bound by the terms of the Ministerial Order, they must comply with state and territory legal obligations and also, their duty of care to students. All registrations standards address the topic of discipline. For example:

  • Victoria: The VRQA Guidelines to the minimum standards and other requirements for registration of schools including those offering senior secondary courses requires schools to have polices outlining:
    • an explanation of the school’s approach to discipline and how it ensures procedural fairness
    • procedures for suspension, expulsion and exclusion
    • procedures for imposing penalties
    • documentation and communications processes.
  • WA: Standard 14 of the 2018 Standards for Non-Government schools: Management of Students’ Behaviour requires that all students receive positive guidance and encouragement towards acceptable behaviours and are given opportunity to interact and develop respectful relationships with each other, staff members and volunteers. Additionally, any form or behaviour management, discipline or punishment conforms to the principles of procedural fairness and the prohibition of unlawful discrimination.
  • NT: Section 125 of the Education Act (NT) requires that schools have a policy for the discipline of student.  This is to develop a culture of positive discipline by setting clear expectations of students and encouraging positive behaviour.  This includes following procedural fairness and prohibiting corporal punishment.

Common themes are: corporal punishment is forbidden, procedural fairness is key and the positive behaviour of students should be encouraged.  In light of these requirements and themes, what are the most common forms of punishment in schools?

Common Forms of Punishment in Schools

The common types of punishment are:

  • withdrawal from class
  • detention
  • suspension
  • expulsion/exclusion.

Withdrawal from Class

If a student’s behaviour interferes with the rights of other students to learn or affects the capacity of a teacher to teach a class or has the possibility to cause harm to others, that student may be temporarily removed from regular classroom activities.  This can include, in more serious cases, that the student may be required to leave the classroom for a specified period of time.  When the child has been withdrawn from a class, schools must remember that they have a duty of care to ensure that students are supervised at all times, even when the student has been removed from the class.

Detention

Detention is a response to a wide range of inappropriate school behaviour breaches.  Detention can effectively reinforce to students the importance of maintaining appropriate behaviour standards.  Of course, parents or carers must be informed if their child is required to attend detention.  Where family circumstances are such that an after-school detention would create undue hardship, schools may choose to negotiate alternative disciplinary measures with a parent or carer.

Suspension

The process of suspension excludes a student from a standard instruction or educational opportunities for part of a day, a full day or multiple days. Like detention, the student’s parent or carer needs to be informed of the suspension.

Expulsion

Expulsion is the permanent removal of a student from the facilities of one particular school.

Exclusion 

Exclusion is the act of preventing a student’s admission to a number of schools. In extreme circumstances, the principal of a school may make a submission to an appropriate authority, or other schools, recommending the permanent exclusion of a student from the registration system that the school is a member of, or from other schools.

The importance of a discipline policy

One thing that non-government schools can take away from the Ombudsman recommendations is the importance of following their procedures on discipline and behaviour management policies, including following the rules on procedural fairness. When punishing a student, schools must remember that it should be procedurally fair while at the same time appropriately punishing a student for their indiscretion, whether it be detention, suspension or – as a last resort – expulsion or exclusion.

 

William Kelly is a School Governance reporter. He can be contacted here.

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