In one recent week, Advocates for Children got four calls from families whose children had been suspended from the same charter elementary school (Hyde Leadership Charter). A parent from another charter school called to say that her son had been suspended three times for "yelling." Is suspension the usual appropriate response to yelling, the parent wondered, and if not, what recourse did she and her son have?

Advocates for Children has produced a guide to Charter School Discipline (pdf) to help answer questions like these.

"Parents are not sure what schools can do and can’t do," said Paulina Davis, an attorney at AFC. "The point of the guide is to bring a little bit of clarity to parents."

AFC receives frequent complaints from charter school parents whose children are expelled, suspended, or counseled to leave the school because it is not an "appropriate fit." Unlike ordinary public schools, charter schools can make their own rules about discipline--within certain limits. But parents may have more rights than they realize, Davis said.

For example, students may be suspended for behavior that is disruptive or endangers others, but they may not be suspended for being absent, coming to school late, or failing to follow school policy.

If their child is suspended, parents should receive a notice of the charges against the student, Davis said, and they should also be told they have a right to a hearing, the date of the hearing and that they can bring an attorney, or advocate.

"Parents are being told they should take their kids out of the school to avoid expulsion altogether, but the parent isn’t told what their right is in any proposed expulsion," she said. "They have a right to a hearing–the school has to show that the kid did what they said they did."

In ordinary public schools, the rules are clearer: Only students who are at least 17 years of age and not in special education may be expelled. For suspensions, children are entitled to a hearing by the Department of Education and, if suspended, are sent to DOE suspension centers. Different rules may apply to students with disabilities.

There is no outside disciplinary body for charter schools, Davis said. "Principals recommend expulsion and then the principal is the one who conducts the hearing. We certainly have issues with that." However, charter schools must follow certain state and federal laws concerning discipline.

AFC's guide clarifies what steps parents can take if their child is suspended, including their right to a hearing with witnesses, and a right to appeal the school's decision. They can appeal an unsatisfactory decision to the school's board of trustees, the charter school authorizer and then to the state.

"We want parents to know there is this process," Davis said. "At least they will know what things they should be expecting from the school."

To reach AFC's helpline, call 866-427-6033 Monday through Thursday, 10 am to 4 pm. A copy of AFC's guide to Charter School Discipline is here.