What can I do when my child has been arrested or is in trouble at school?

By Tab Lawhorn, Member of Derryberry Zips Wade Lawhorn, PLLC

As my flight left the slick run way headed for home, I couldn’t help but notice that the woman next to me was in severe distress.  It has been raining for days, and the beads of water were glistening off the tiny window next to her in such a way that it made it impossible to clearly see the wing of the 727.  I kindly offered a few words of encouragement about the safety of flying and the weather, when she explained that she wasn’t afraid to fly.  Ten thousand feet later, she started to tell me that her son was arrested at school and she didn’t know what to do.

When a child is in trouble at school, parents often think that their child has all the same rights as a criminal defendant.  They don’t.  Often times, kids will have punishment and disciplinary records that will follow them until they graduate.  Even a simple accusation by another student can turn a reprimand by a teacher into a police investigation.  Whether your child is only facing administrative punishment from the school, or if they are facing criminal charges from the State, you can arm yourself with these important steps to greatly increase your chances of helping your child both legally and administratively.

1. Call your attorney.

  If you don’t have an attorney, then call me.  My initial consultation for you and your child is free.  If you don’t call me, then at least call a lawyer who has experience in juvenile law and has worked with school administrations and their policies.  Many parents I’ve talked to, including the one on the plane that day, all have a sense of helplessness simply because they just don’t have the vital information that a competent lawyer can provide.  I’ve seen a parent’s anger towards their child turn into embarrassment and frustration right before my eyes, and many times, these emotions are unnecessary once they get the information they need about the rights of their child.

2.  Read your child’s student handbook.

Sounds crazy right?  Believe me, there is a reason that schools are required to have one and issue it to their students.  If your child wasn’t handed an actual printed book, then you can always find a copy on your school district’s website.  For example, the Tyler ISD student handbook can be found here.  The most important parts of the handbook address punishment.  For example, the administrative rules regarding punishment that are in place by your school district have different appeal procedures depending on who administered the punishment.  Let’s say your child was wrongfully accused by a teacher, the handbook would give a deadline by which you could appeal that punishment and accusation to the vice principal.  There may even be additional levels of appealing punishment all the way to the school board–which acts like the supreme court on all decisions of discipline.  Many school districts divide up punishment by levels and this information would be contained in your child’s handbook.  I once had a case where my client, a 9 year old girl who was wrongfully accused of stealing a cell phone, had her punishment upheld at every level until we finally had the school board vote to remove her punishment and restore her school records.  It was a hard fought victory indeed, but one that would not have been possible if the parents had not read the handbook and complied with the deadlines for appealing the punishment.

3.  Listen to your child.

When you first confront your child about a discipline violation at school, don’t be the one that does all the talking.  Sometimes the best information I gather about an incident at school comes from me just simply letting a child tell her side of the story.

Kids will often retreat into silence or not be truthful when they feel threatened about an incident at school. Remember to listen to your child about an incident at school.

We often assume that children do not share the same sense of right and wrong that adults do and that can lead us to discredit their version of an incident, even if they are trying to tell the truth.  This is a terrible mistake.  That doesn’t mean that we leave our common sense at the door and believe everything a child says, but if your child knows that you are willing to listen to them, then they will often times shoot you straight.  If you scream at them, they will say almost anything to get you to stop, including admitting to something they didn’t do.  School officials make this mistake all the time.

4.  Don’t assume that school officials are on your side.  Many times, a school rule violation can also be a crime.  If your child takes a gun to school, you will quickly realize the distinction.  Any statement you or your child makes to school officials can be used against him or her in a criminal investigation later. If your child is being asked questions that could subject her or him to a crime, then you seriously need legal counsel.

In one of my more serious juvenile cases, a young man in highschool admitted to his coach that he did something he didn’t actually do because he thought that he would merely be doing extra laps around the track as punishment.  Four days later, he was brought before a judge after being arrested, and it took six months to get the charges dismissed.  The criminal charges were gone, but the experience of being arrested, sitting in jail, and missing his family will be with him forever.  If he had known that his statements to his coach that day could have led to his eventual arrest, then he would have taken the situation much more seriously.

I’m not saying that school administrators are always out to get your child.  In fact, I think that most of the time, they get it right when it comes to enforcing their rules and doing the right thing.  But we humans have a tendency to occasionally get things wrong, even when we mean well.

5. The criminal juvenile system is no joke.

  If circumstances are completely out of your control with your child and his or her situation at school, then you will be visiting them at the local juvenile justice center.

Juveniles await a detention hearing in hopes of getting to go home with their parents.

Your child can be taken to jail and detained there if the judge determines detention is needed.  However, your child can be released into your custody with special conditions.  Kids don’t bond out of juvenile detention like adults do in jail.  If your child is released to you pending the trial of their case, then you are responsible for seeing that they appear timely in court.  If your child is facing assault, theft, drug charges, or another type of charge, and you don’t know what to do, then remember tip #1 and give me a call.

Tab Lawhorn is a criminal lawyer and partner at Derryberry Zips Wade Lawhorn, PLLC.  He lives in Tyler, Texas with his wife Zoe, his two loving dogs, Noodle and Fathead, and Mancat, his not-so-loving cat.  For a decade, he has fought for the rights of those individuals who have been wrongfully accused of a crime whose ages range from 8 years old to 80.  He has lectured school boards on punishment statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and represented hundreds of kids in juvenile court.  He has founded YOURENOTGUILTY.COM and has been an active donor and community volunteer in East Texas ever since.

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