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School discipline: What are the rights of kids with IEPs and 504 plans?

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

At a Glance

  • Public schools can discipline any student who breaks school rules.

  • However, students with IEPs or 504 plans have extra protections.

  • Schools must help students when misbehavior is caused by a disability, like a learning or thinking difference.

All students must follow school rules — including students with and . When students break rules, schools have the authority to discipline them. This is because public schools must maintain a safe, orderly learning environment.

When it comes to school discipline, all students have some basic rights: 

  • They have the right to know beforehand what the rules are.

  • They have the right to challenge accusations and prove innocence.

  • In some states, students who are suspended have the right to instruction at home.

In addition to these rights, students with IEPs and 504 plans have extra protections. (Sometimes, kids who don’t have these plans are protected too.) These protections aren’t an excuse for breaking rules. They simply help everyone understand the cause of misbehavior. And they require schools to try to reduce misbehavior and prevent it from happening again.

The protections come from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The rules are complicated. They cover two main areas:

  1. When a child is removed from school, which prevents the child from receiving services. This is called a change in placement.

  2. When a child’s misbehavior is caused by a disability, like a learning or thinking difference. This is called manifestation.

Dive deeper

Change in placement

To discipline students, schools often suspend them from school. Or remove them from class. This can prevent students from getting the services in their IEPs or 504 plans. 

When a child has been removed from school for more than a total of 10 school days, it’s called a change in placement. (It doesn’t have to be 10 days in a row — just 10 total days.) 

The change in placement results in extra protections.

  • The school must immediately notify parents or caregivers in writing of the change. 

  • The school must inform them about their legal rights (called procedural safeguards).

  • The school must provide the student with the services in the IEP or 504 plan, wherever the student is.

  • The school must conduct a special review, called a manifestation determination.

It’s not always necessary to reach 10 days. There can be a change in placement if there’s a pattern of removing a child from school — for example, if the school suspends a student five times for the same misbehavior, each time for only one day.

Learn more about procedural safeguards .

Manifestation determination

Sometimes, misbehavior is the result of a child’s challenges. This is where a manifestation determination comes in.

In this process, the IEP team asks whether misbehavior is caused by a disability. (This may include a learning or thinking difference.) In other words, is the behavior a “manifestation” of the student’s challenges? If so, more protections apply.

To decide, the team looks at any relevant information. That may be the nature of the misbehavior. They might observe the child. And they may look at the child’s IEP file and school records. 

The team also checks to see if the student’s IEP was followed. For example, maybe the student didn’t get counseling that was part of the IEP, and that’s why the student acted out. 

This process can lead to three possible results:

  1. The misbehavior was caused by the child’s disability: Here, the school and the IEP team must immediately try to figure out why the misbehavior happened. This is called a functional behavioral assessment (FBA). Then the team must put in place a behavior intervention plan (BIP) to lessen the misbehavior. If the student already has a BIP, then the team needs to review and make any changes that are needed. The student can return to school.

  2. The misbehavior was the result of not following the IEP: In this case, the school must fix the situation right away. They must implement the IEP (or 504 plan) properly. And the student can return to school.

  3. The misbehavior wasn’t caused by the child’s disability: The school can treat the student the same as it treats students without an IEP or 504 plan. It may keep the student out of school. However, even with this change in placement, the school must continue to provide services.

Find out who makes sure that schools follow special education law .

Drugs, weapons, and serious injury

When misbehavior is caused by a disability, kids with IEPs and 504 plans generally go back to school. But there are exceptions. Schools can keep students out for up to 45 school days if a removal was because of a special situation:  

  • Bringing a weapon to school

  • Selling or having illegal drugs at school

  • Causing serious bodily injury

They can also ask a judge to remove students when there is a substantial risk of serious injury. 

In these situations, schools often place students in alternative settings or schools. But they still need to provide services if there is a change in placement.

Learn more about risky behavior in kids who learn and think differently .

How to find a school’s code of conduct

It’s important to know what the school’s rules are. Every public school has a code of conduct with rules of behavior.

The code might include rules like no obscene language, no disrupting classes, and no smoking. It may have a dress code, academic rules, and attendance requirements. The code should also spell out the consequences for breaking rules. 

You should be able to find the code of conduct for a school on its website. The school may also send a copy home to parents and caregivers at the start of the school year. The principal should also have a copy of the code on hand.

Parents and caregivers: Get tips on how to talk about behavior challenges with the school .

Different types of school discipline

School discipline actions can range from minor to very harsh. Some schools are traditional and focus on punishment. Others are more progressive. 

This is a list of school discipline you may hear about:

  • Parent contact: Calling a child’s parents or sending a note home

  • Conference: Having the child meet with a principal or teacher, sometimes joined by parents or caregivers

  • Schoolwork: Requiring the child to do schoolwork, like writing the same sentence over and over on the chalkboard

  • Counseling: Pairing the child with a professional to talk about the misbehavior

  • Detention: Placing a child in a supervised area during or after school

  • Suspension: Sending a child home from school for one or more days

  • Expulsion: Removing a child from school permanently

  • Restraint: Preventing a child from moving, either physically or with a mechanical device

  • Seclusion: Placing a child alone in a locked room or separate area of the school and not letting the child leave

  • Restorative justice: Having a child make amends through an apology, peer mediation, or other action

Some types of discipline — like restraint and seclusion — are very controversial. These practices are legal in some states. (To get more information, read a government letter about restraint and seclusion.) 

Learn about positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), an approach to school discipline focused on prevention, not punishment.

If your child is facing school discipline

If your child faces school discipline, it’s helpful to understand the overall process.

When kids get in trouble at school, the first person they see is often the principal or assistant principal. If the discipline is serious, you will probably be called in for a meeting. At the meeting, it’s important to ask what rule your child is accused of breaking.

If you disagree with the school’s decision, you can appeal it. Typically, you’d contact the superintendent or the school board. There would be a hearing where you would make your case.

At the same time, if your child has an IEP or a 504 plan, you’re also working with the IEP team. You can challenge placement. You can also challenge a manifestation determination. If time is critical, you can ask for an expedited hearing, which is a sped-up process. 

If you run into a disciplinary issue, many experts recommend talking to a lawyer or advocate .

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