What You Need To Know About School Discipline

When Behavior Interferes With Learning

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? The school calls regularly, asking you to pick up your child from school early because of behavior. The school team recommends a shortened day or home-based instruction due to increasing behavior concerns in the afternoons. Or the team suggests that you should withdraw your child from school rather than risk a suspension or expulsion on their permanent record.

Parents might think their children won’t be disciplined, suspended or expelled if they receive services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan, but they can. While students with IEPs or 504 plans can receive discipline for violating school policies, additional protection is available to these students.

All parents are encouraged to become familiar with discipline policies for their schools and districts and to read the parent/student handbooks. Links to this information are usually available on the school or district website in the Governing Board section. Contacting the child’s teacher and school staff at the beginning of each school year and establishing strong communication plans can also be helpful, especially for students with known behavior challenges.


Requesting early pickup removes a student from instruction and time with their peers. Public schools are required to provide Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to their students with IEPs. Sending a student home early potentially interferes with their right to receive FAPE.

If your child’s school calls you to get your child, ask questions. Is your child sick and unable to finish the school day? If there’s no health concern, you can then ask whether your child is being suspended. If the school is suspending your child, request an incident report and any other related documentation.

Amanda Glass, managing attorney of the education team at Arizona Center for Disability Law, encourages parents to assume best intentions from the school team but to also to keep in mind that students with disability-related behaviors are entitled to the same amount of school time as nondisabled students.

If your child is not being suspended and is not ill, you are not required to pick up your child before the end of the school day, Glass added. However, there are risks to refusing to pick up your child, such as schools calling the police, the Department of Child Safety or a crisis team. If you choose to pick up your child, document some information, including the sign-out time and the reason you were requested to get your child.

“Parents can confirm whether the school is asking them to pick up their child, or if they are informing them of a situation,” noted Sabrina Salmon, Ph.D., LMFT, senior director of exceptional education with the Tucson Unified School District. “If a child is being sent home, it’s also important to look at how the student will transition back in and what we will do differently. How can the student and school team learn from what happened?”

Keep track of the frequency and number of hours your child misses. When the amount of missed hours of school from early pickups equals 10 full school days, you can request a Manifestation Determination meeting. During this process, the school team investigates whether the behavior was a manifestation of the child’s disability. In other words, did the child’s disability cause the behavior issue?

Manifestation hearings are required once a special education student has been suspended for 10 school days in a school year. However, sending a student home early doesn’t necessarily trigger the 10-day rule. Parents can still track the hours missed and alert the team when it’s getting close to 10 full missed days. Parents can also request an IEP meeting earlier or at any time, to discuss concerns.

Parents can ask the school team for more specifics about why a student is being sent home. “Are they being sent home for a peer issue? Are they becoming dysregulated, overstimulated or tired at the end of the day?” said Jennie Hedges, senior program manager, Compassionate Education Systems with the National Center for Youth Law. “This information can help provide a roadmap. Do they need additional support in their IEP or 504 plan, or do they need a behavior assessment? All this information needs to be documented and used to formulate the next step. There will always be a next step.”

If parents start with the school team but don’t receive a response, they can move up the chain of command to contacting school leadership and then district leadership. Beyond that, families can contact the Arizona Department of Education for students on IEPs or the Office for Civil Rights to file a complaint.

If a student doesn’t have an IEP or 504 plan but parents receive recurring calls about behavior, parents can contact the school to discuss potential interventions. If there are documented interventions that have not resulted in improvement in behavior parents could request a formal evaluation, said Leila Williams, Ph.D., director of exceptional education with the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson. It’s highly likely that based on data collected, the school team might want to recommend formal evaluation as well, she added. “Ultimately, we want to have regular conversations with the family.”

In addition to any punitive action against the child, parents and the school team can create an opportunity for the child to receive support to make better choices, said Jennifer Olsen. As a parent and a former school principal, she’s seen both sides of school discipline. School counselors, psychologists and others should be a part of the disciplinary process, she noted, especially for a student who is struggling to meet the behavioral norms of the school. Parents can ask if their child can connect with school staff before, during or after a consequence is served.

In-school suspension removes a student from the class setting for a designated period of time. Students might work independently with supervision during this time. However, a student is still removed from classroom time, so parents are advised to track any in-school suspension time as well.

A school team could also recommend a shorter day or home-based instruction if they see a pattern of worsening behavior throughout the day. A shortened school day or home-based instruction could be appropriate for students with medical conditions who face fatigue or need intensive treatment during the school day. However, shortened school days or home-based instruction are considered more restrictive environments for students. Parents are encouraged to question whether the suggested option is the least restrictive environment possible for their student.

When facing this recommendation, parents can ask questions about whether the suggested method is needed to address their child’s specific disability-related needs. They can also ask what types of support the team uses to address challenging behavior, and for documentation to support recommended changes in placement.

If the team decides to move forward with a change like this and you do not agree, ask to have your disagreement noted in the IEP and the Prior Written Notice (PWN). The PWN outlines changes to the IEP. You can also request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE), asking the school to pay an independent provider to evaluate your child and provide a second opinion.

Families who participate in the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) have opted out of the public school system and are not entitled to FAPE. If parents believe their child’s private school is discriminating on the basis of disability, they can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the U.S. Department of Justice or the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. They can also pursue a lawsuit.


Formal discipline methods include out-of-school suspension or expulsion. When a student with an IEP or 504 plan is suspended for 11 or more school days, the team is required to hold a Manifestation Determination hearing.

If the behavior prompting the suspension or expulsion was caused by the child’s disability, the team must determine how to better support the child in school through different services, accommodations or placement. This must also include creating or redoing a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) to identify causes and triggers of behavior and writing a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP).

If the behavior was caused by the student’s disability, the student can’t be removed from the school except in specific scenarios including possession of a dangerous weapon or illegal drug or causing serious bodily injury. Even if the behavior is found not to be a manifestation of a student’s disability, the school is still tasked with providing FAPE and related services to special education students during their suspension or expulsion in an interim alternative education setting.

When facing long-term suspension or expulsion, it’s important for parents and students to know they can bring witnesses and documentation about their disability needs, Hedges said. “Students will have the opportunity to tell their side of the story,” she added. However, she warns that if a student faces criminal charges, information from the long-term suspension or expulsion hearing could also be used in criminal hearings.

Previously, students under age 7 could only be suspended or expelled if specific conditions were met. This applied to all students, not only those with IEPs or 504 plans. This law is changing in fall 2023; check with your school district for up-to-date information.

When a student faces long-term suspension or expulsion, the school team could propose that parents withdraw their child from school instead to avoid the suspension or expulsion appearing on the child’s record. While this may sound tempting, it could leave parents with few options. If the family agrees to withdraw from their home school district, no other district is required to accept the student.

If a family decides to keep a child with an IEP enrolled and proceed with a Manifestation Determination hearing, the student is still entitled to FAPE regardless of the outcome. “If a child has an IEP, they are always entitled to receive the services in their IEP, even if they are long-term suspended or expelled,” Glass said.

In some cases, it might be better to withdraw the child rather than face expulsion, Glass noted, as Arizona state law permits schools to refuse to enroll a student who has a previous expulsion on their record.

Above all, professionals encourage regular communication with their child’s school team. “Parents (or guardians) are critical to the child’s success,” Williams said. “They know their children better than anyone, and they are their children’s best advocates.”

Raising Special Kids provides discipline resources including fact sheets on our website at raisingspecialkids.org/resources/education.

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