The Schoolyard Lawyer: Standard of Proof in School Suspension/Expulsion Hearings


When a student is suspended or expelled from school, there are certain procedures that the school must follow in order to protect the student’s due process rights. The student will be allowed to have a suspension/expulsion hearing (in most circumstances) where he/she has a right to be represented by counsel, can present the facts, and can question witnesses. This is all set forth in Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 71 on Public Schools.

The question then becomes: what is the standard of proof at these hearings? Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the law does not specifically state the standard of proof for disciplinary issues involving suspensions and/or expulsions. Instead, the principal has the discretion to suspend or expel a student who has violated the handbook. He must, however, use reasonable care and a make a professional judgment based on all of the circumstances surrounding the incident and the particular student involved. In Cady v. Plymouth-Carver Regional School District, 457 N.E. 2d 294 (Mass. App. 1983), the Massachusetts Appeals Court stated:

Standards for dealing with … disruptive student behavior, must be as variable as the personalities of the students and the settings in which disruption occurs. Certainly, there are no readily ascertainable standards. … We can imagine circumstances in which ignoring obviously dangerous proclivities of a student might be negligent because the standards are clear.

The standard on appeal of a principal’s decision is also broad and unclear. The law states that the Superintendent shall hear the appeal, and “the subject matter of the appeal shall not be limited solely to a factual determination of whether the student has violated any provisions of this section” (MGL Chapter 71, section 37H).  The superintendent is encouraged to consider factors beyond the suspension/expulsion incident when reviewing the principal’s decision.

This can be used to a student’s advantage though, because an attorney can present the bigger picture at this hearing, taking the focus away from the incident and making it more about that particular student.