School Board of Trustees agrees to address significant deficiencies in suspension procedure

Ombudsmen Act 1975
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Ombudsmen Act 1975
Hon Anand Satyanand
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Suspension and expulsion of student where several significant deficiencies were identified in the procedures of the Board’s disciplinary committee led to the Board of Trustees agreeing to review its procedures and apologise to student and family—the Board also amended student’s records to show the suspension decision was invalid—the Board’s willingness to address its deficiencies were notable in this case (Board members were all new to the role) 

The complainant’s son was suspended from college until his 16th birthday and thereafter expelled on the grounds that his continual disobedience while under the control of the school amounted to gross misconduct. The misconduct was said by the Board to be striking and reprehensible to a high degree warranting the student’s removal from the school.

The student’s parents considered the Board’s decision extreme. They complained also of omissions in the suspension process, including the failure to provide them with relevant reports within a reasonable time to enable them to prepare for the disciplinary meeting, the failure to provide counselling and guidance to their son for his behaviour problems described as 'continual disobedience’ and to inform them of the problems, and the omission to consider an alternative method of discipline. They submitted further that remarks of the Chairperson of the Disciplinary Committee at the beginning of the proceedings disclosed he had a preconceived view and this unfairly influenced the outcome of the hearing.

The investigation confirmed the various deficiencies identified by the complainants. Reports which should have been provided to them by the college 24 hours before the disciplinary meeting in accordance with Ministry guidelines did not reach them until the afternoon of the day of the meeting. Although the parents had been asked at the meeting whether they had received the reports, there had been no inquiry as to whether they had had sufficient time to properly prepare for the hearing. While it could be argued that any deficiency in this respect should have been brought to the meeting’s attention by the parents on their own account, such argument overlooked the greater experience and knowledge of the Board in the conduct of disciplinary hearings and the onus which resides with the Board to ensure compliance with the principles of natural justice.

The opening remarks of the Board’s Chairperson about which the parents complained were clearly subjective in nature and exaggerated. Further, they clearly signalled where the Chairperson stood on the events which had caused the student to appear before the meeting and in the circumstances it was not possible to be satisfied that the Disciplinary Committee had been led in its task in an impartial and open-minded way.

In respect of the Board’s obligation to provide counselling and guidance to the student, the investigation found no basis for challenging the school’s statement that all misbehaviours has been discussed with the student. However, there was a great deal of doubt about the efficacy of communications with the parents. Notices which had been issued to the student relating to detentions and impositions could not reasonably be construed as providing the parents with notice of their son’s misbehaviours. Nor were his misdemeanours of sufficient gravity to constitute cumulatively grounds for his removal from school.

An examination of the Board’s decision to expel the student showed that it was significantly flawed. While the decision referred to the student’s 'continual disobedience’ as the reason for his removal, the focus of the disciplinary meeting had been primarily, if not exclusively, on a particular event, namely lunchtime fight. There was no evidence that the disciplinary meeting considered any earlier incidents of misbehaviour listed on the student’s school incident report or made any assessment of whether they constituted a harmful and dangerous example to other students. The finding of 'continual disobedience’ on the part of the Board was not sustainable. Also, no evidence was produced to show that the Board sought to consider lifting the suspension subject to conditions, or at all. Therefore the Board had not exercised its discretion properly. This omission and the other deficiencies identified were sufficiently significant to invalidate the Board’s decision.

In response to this view the Board of Trustees, whose leadership and composition had changed since the disciplinary meeting before which the complainants had appeared with their son, undertook to review its procedures and implement changes to ensure that the deficiencies and difficulties brought to light by the investigation were resolved and that future disciplinary action would be based on fair and correct procedures. Although this action on the part of the Board was welcome and commendable, it was of no direct benefit to the complainant’s son who still felt he had been most unfairly and unjustly treated. As a means of addressing this, the Board apologised to the family and amended the student’s school records to show that its decision had been invalid.

The willingness and apparent dedication of the Board to address its deficiencies was notable in this case. No further complaints have been received involving this particular college. As for the parents, they were content to accept the Board’s apology and the amendment of the record as full and final settlement of the complaint.

This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.

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