School suspensions turn into trials

JO MOIR
Last updated 05:00 05/05/2014

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Parents calling on lawyers to fight their child's suspension from school are turning disciplinary hearings into "mini High Court trials", school leaders say.

The complex steps leading to a disciplinary hearing - a last resort for schools dealing with serious misconduct - were becoming the focus of lawyers nit-picking rather than the student's misbehaviour, Teachers Council disciplinary tribunal member and principal Patrick Walsh said.

"Lawyers are challenging the process and the facts of the case . . . . where actually parents should be dealing with the issues of their child, not bringing in a lawyer to argue the line of procedure."

An increased legal presence meant principals were questioning going down the path of disciplinary hearings if it meant they might end up on the wrong side of the law, Walsh said. "Suspension hearings are becoming mini High Court trials."

Scots College headmaster Graeme Yule said the focus shifted from the rights and wrongs of a case to the process in which lawyers attended disciplinary hearings.

Although Yule is confident of his ability to follow correct procedures and doesn't use a lawyer in hearings, he would do so if the issue was contentious.

"If there was something I was unsure of I would take legal advice to not only protect the school but make sure the process was fair to the student and parents."

"I've had lawyers sit in on meetings with parents and I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing if parents are getting legal advice."

Wellington lawyer James Dunne has represented both schools and parents in disciplinary hearings and said in recent years several schools had lost court cases lodged by parents.

If a parent wasn't satisfied with the decision to suspend or exclude their child from a school they could seek a judicial review.

Dunne said a judge made a ruling after assessing the school board of trustees decision against the Education Act.

"Reviews could cost tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of thousands depending on how far it goes. You can't put a price on parental affection and if someone really wants to see their darling staying in school then the price wouldn't matter."

Both schools and parents were seeking legal counsel more often, which would make principals feel as if hearings were being turned in to a court trial situation, Dunne said.

"I've certainly heard and seen more cases of it . . . and there will probably continue to be more as schools evolve."

Christchurch lawyer David Beck has worked in the education sector for 15 years and is a trustee on a primary school board. The complex system of suspending a pupil meant one wrong move picked up by a lawyer could lead to a suspension being invalid, he said.

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"Having lawyers involved makes schools be much more cautious, which is a good thing.

"There's a lot at stake for students in a discipline situation, in terms of their reputation especially if they're near leaving school and applying for university."

Beck said the process was growing in complexity and he was seeing more lawyers involved.

"Cases like this are increasing and that's both a sign of the time and pressure on children to do well and stay in school."

- The Dominion Post

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