17 Oct 2016

Illegal school suspensions on the rise - report

6:45 am on 17 October 2016

Some schools are increasingly using illegal methods to exclude or suspend students they find troublesome, a new report has found.

School child and mother

Photo: 123RF

The report by community law centre, Youth Law, said the number of backdoor cases of suspension it dealt with had tripled in just two years and there were likely to be other cases that never came to its attention.

The report said schools were asking parents to keep their children home instead of suspending them, and suggesting they move schools before they were excluded or expelled.

It said many principals and school trustees did not understand the law, there was little consistency in schools' treatment of disciplinary issues, and in particular Māori children and children with special needs were facing informal barriers to education.

"There appear to be variable and inconsistent approaches in dealing with misconduct and discipline of students across the country. Some identified reasons for this include substantial misunderstanding as to the ambit of authority under the Education Act 1989 and lack of reporting requirements, monitoring and oversight of these processes by the Ministry of Education," the report said.

"Our research indicates a trend of Māori students in particular being subject to a large number of informal barriers and an overwhelming number of students with special needs also experiencing significant barriers," it said.

The report was based on 53 survey responses and more than 200 Youth Law cases.

It recommended more in-depth research to identify the true scale of the problem.

It also called for an independent tribunal that parents could appeal to over schools' disciplinary actions as well as law changes and better training for principals and school trustees.

"We suggest that reform at a law and policy level is vital," the report said.

"Our key recommendation is the introduction of greater accountability, reporting requirements, oversight, monitoring and audit of processes that are being carried out in schools. More particularly, we suggest the introduction of reporting of disciplinary practices within schools should form an integral part of annual performance reporting by schools to the MOE [Ministry of Education].

"We also suggest the MOE or another appropriate body should have greater powers of oversight, monitoring and audit processes to ensure consistency from school to school."

Informal stand-downs increasing

The report said official figures showed school's use of formal disciplinary measures such as stand-downs and suspensions had declined, but there was evidence that schools were increasingly using informal methods instead.

The report called such actions "kiwi suspensions" and included examples from cases that had been brought to Youth Law.

  • "D was diagnosed with ADHD, and had been struggling at school. After being stood down
  • several times, D was told to unenrol or D would be excluded."

  • "S's parents were called to a meeting with school management. At that meeting S's parents were advised it would be better for S if S was to stay away from school for "a while" ."
  • "R's parents were told to take him home from school every day at lunch time as R was not permitted to stay in school a full day, due to behavioural issues related to R's special needs."

The report said challenging a school's disciplinary decisions was a slow and often expensive process, requiring a judicial review or a complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman.

It said families needed other options and suggested creating a litigation fund to pay for judicial reviews, and an education commissioner or an independent tribunal to investigate complaints.

One of the report's authors, Jennifer Walsh, said more research was needed but informal removals, known as 'kiwi suspensions', appeared to be on the rise.

She said Youth Law alone dealt with 45 cases last year, up from 15 in 2013.

"Vulnerable students seem to be disproportionately affected by these informal removals and there is some real needs to ensure there is consistency across different schools and in terms of ensuring vulnerable students are actually protected in accessing their right to education," she said.

Ms Walsh said kiwi suspensions breached children's right to education and could have harmful effects.

"When children are disengaged from education there are consequential flow-on effects in the criminal justice and welfare sectors," she said.

Ms Walsh said it was difficult and expensive for families to challenge schools' decisions and the government should set up an independent tribunal to review schools actions.

'Kiwi suspensions' have their place - principal

The principal of John Paul College in Rotorua, Patrick Walsh, has represented principals in official work on discipline and legal matters.

He said informal suspensions and exclusions were happening, but sometimes they had their place.

"If it's done to circumvent the disciplinary process under the Education Act that would be wrong and improper.

"If it's an option prior to getting to there, then I think it is legitimate to explore it because the difficultly that students face if they end up being excluded, it's often very difficult once that's happened to get some other school to accept them."

Mr Walsh said both schools and parents would benefit from the creation of an independent body to consider complaints about school's disciplinary decisions.

Sound processes followed in majority of cases - MOE

Ministry of Education deputy secretary Kim Shannon said it was confident the vast majority of schools used robust processes for managing students with extremely inappropriate behaviour, or who posed safety risks because of their behaviour.

"We are however aware that in a very small minority of cases some schools have not followed the correct processes. We do not condone these practices and where this is drawn to our attention we will act to ensure the proper process is followed," she said.

"Any parent who is concerned their child has not been suspended or excluded correctly can contact us and we will take the matter up with the school concerned."

Ms Shannon said schools sometimes faced extremely challenging behaviour from a very small number of children and young people.

"When they take action it is almost always in the interests of the safety of other children, teachers and the child whose behaviour is a concern. If a school suspends, excludes or expels a child usually it is only done after a number of other things have been tried - and in by far the majority of cases very sound processes are followed," she said.

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