Coronavirus (COVID-19): Online Education and Dealing with Student Discipline in Massachusetts

Schools serve children academically, as well as on a social-emotional level, and school personnel work to provide positive school environments where children can learn and thrive.  One of the ways schools ensure their environments remain positive and supportive for all students is through student discipline policies and student handbooks.  Massachusetts laws require that school have policies regarding student discipline, and also mandate that students must receive a handbook explaining the school rules.  Such policies remain important even during this time of distance learning due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Indeed, the guidance issued by the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education regarding Remote Learning Recommendations during COVID-19 School Closures recognizes that the well-being of students is a top priority for schools during this pandemic.  The guidance also emphasizes that social-emotional and mental health needs could intensify for students during this time of distance learning.

Schools continue to have an obligation to comply with applicable federal and state laws regarding student discipline.  In particular, schools should remain mindful of the laws and regulations governing discipline for students with disabilities, even while conducting virtual instruction, including those regarding punishments for infractions that are determined to be a manifestation of a disability.  IEP teams should be flexible when making decisions in the current environment.

Additionally, Massachusetts schools are required to comply with Massachusetts’ anti-bullying law, which requires that schools adhere to a plan to address bullying prevention and intervention, including descriptions of and statements prohibiting bullying, cyber-bullying, and retaliation.  Of particular relevance to the COVID-19 crisis is cyber-bullying.  Cyber-bullying is bullying through the use of technology or any electronic communication.  It can include any transfer of writing or images through internet communications, as well as the creation of the knowing impersonation of another person as the author of posted content or messages, if the creation or impersonation creates any of the conditions of bullying.  Schools’ bullying prevention and intervention plans must include procedures for promptly responding to and investigating reports of bullying, including cyber-bullying, and schools must have procedures to restore a victim’s sense of safety, including assessing the student victim’s needs for protection.

During school closures due to COVID-19, schools may also encounter a rise in other student discipline issues, such as plagiarism and cheating (e.g., looking up answers on another device or having someone else within the home complete an exam).  Schools may also still encounter sexting incidents between students, which is the electronic exchange of pornographic images between students.  This includes situations where students may initially share images consensually between each other, but the images are later re-circulated to other students without permission.

In light of the challenges of such student discipline issues during this time, schools may choose to revise their discipline policies and provide an addendum to their student handbooks to address distance learning and COVID-19 school closures.  Schools should provide updated policies to parents and students with additional explanation surrounding the expectations of remote instruction where warranted.  For instance, parents may not understand that searching on Google to answer a question on an exam could be considered cheating.

Schools will need to be creative with consequences for students who violate the student discipline policy.  Schools may consider requiring students to write a reflective essay or attend a virtual mediation with students when the discipline policy is violated.  Alternatively, schools could provide incentives for students to promote participation in distance learning, including selecting students for remote “Student of the Week.”  Schools could also host a virtual assembly highlighting achievement or allow students to choose certain perks in the online environment, or a promise of one when traditional schooling resumes.

For more serious violations that would generally result in suspension, schools may want to proceed with holding a formal discipline hearing once school buildings reopen.  Schools should still provide proper legal notifications shortly after the infraction occurs, as students remain entitled to the same due process protections.  Schools should consider updating policies to permit flexibility with more serious disciplinary decisions when school buildings reopen.

For more information

If you have questions about compliance in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, please contact Matthew R. Plain, Rita E. Nerney, or Greg Vanden-Eykel,  at 617.654.8200. For New York schools, please reach out to our New York office at 212.792.6246 or to Paul O’NeillJaime Fernand, or Lisa Holtzmuller.

Barton Gilman provides the full scope of legal services to education clients – including, private schools, traditional and non-traditional public schools, charter schools, charter management organizations, education advocacy organizations and other education-related organizations – throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. For more information, please click here.