Student Rights

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Discipline and rules

A typical discipline structure in schools

Many schools use something like the following structure for dealing with disciplinary problems, beginning with individual teachers and then, if necessary, involving more senior school staff:

  • the subject teacher, or perhaps the head of department for that subject
  • the form teacher
  • the dean
  • an assistant principal or deputy principal
  • the principal.

The school guidance counsellor may also become involved in disciplining a student, but counsellors usually prefer to stay outside the discipline process so that they can provide support for the student. See also “Students and confidential school counselling”.

School rules

How are school rules made, and who makes them?

Education Act 1989, ss 72, 75

New Zealand schools are self-governing, with each school setting its own policies and rules for keeping discipline and order. School rules (or “bylaws”) are made by the school’s board of trustees.

Limits on school rules

Education Act 1989, s 72, 75

Any rules that a school board makes must be consistent with the school’s charter, which incorporates the National Administration Guidelines (NAGs) and the National Education Guidelines (NEGs), and with the general law of New Zealand, both legislation and case law (decisions of judges).

Battison v Melloy [2014] NZHC 1462

Any rule has to be precise and clear enough to allow students and parents to fully understand what a rule requires so they know how to act without breaking the rule.

School rules must be fixed in advance. They should be in writing, and parents and students must be able to have access to them. The rules, and what happens if they’re broken, will usually be included in the school’s discipline policy.

Some guidelines for school boards in making rules

Before it makes a rule, the board of trustees should consider the following questions:

  • Have parents and students been consulted? Although the board isn’t legally required to consult with them, it’s always a good idea to do so.
  • Can the rules be legally enforced? For example, a rule giving teachers wide powers to search students, beyond the search and confiscation laws that apply in schools, would be illegal. A rule will also be unenforceable if it’s too vague and uncertain.
  • Are the rules reasonable?
  • Is the rule appropriate for the particular age group? For example, while a primary school rule might ban students from playing in the rain at lunchtime, it’s unlikely that the same rule could be applied to high school students.
  • Are the rules relevant to the school’s educational role?
  • How will parents and students be told about of the rules?
  • What will the school do if the rules are broken? A school rule can’t impose an automatic penalty. If a rule is broken, the school has to take into account all the circumstances of the particular case when it decides how to respond.

What sorts of behaviour is likely to be against the rules?

Note: Schools can differ widely in what they expect of their students, and in the sorts of behaviour they find acceptable or unacceptable. For instance, if you question an instruction given by a teacher, some schools might see this as you simply exercising your right to be fully informed – but other schools might see this as you being rude and disrespectful.

Behaviour that’s likely to be against school rules would include:

  • bullying
  • fighting
  • swearing
  • spitting
  • being abusive or insulting
  • vandalism
  • stealing
  • behaving in a way that prevents other students or staff from doing their work
  • having illegal or banned items, like knives, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or skateboards
  • gambling.

Schools will also expect students to comply with certain standards – for example:

  • being on time for class
  • being prepared for class, including having the necessary paper, pens and books, and having completed homework and assignments
  • participating in class work in a constructive way
  • wearing the correct uniform
  • bringing notes from parents to explain being away from school.

Primary school rules may also include things like designated play areas and road safety.

No automatic penalties

A school rule can’t impose an automatic penalty. If a rule is broken, the school has to take into account all the circumstances of the particular case when it decides how to respond.

Scope of the school’s authority: When and where you’re under its control

Can the school have authority over me outside the gates and outside school hours?

Your school usually doesn’t have any authority over you when it’s outside school hours, you’re not on school grounds, and you’re not representing the school in any way. For example, a school couldn’t suspend you for smoking cannabis at a private party at the weekend.

In some situations the school could still have authority over you even though it’s outside school hours and you’re not on school grounds. For example:

  • In uniform / representing the school – If you’re wearing school uniform you can generally be seen as representing the school, and therefore the school probably has authority over you. However, this hasn’t yet been tested in the New Zealand courts so the law is unclear.
  • On school trips – When you’re on a school trip the school will have authority over you. Your parents will usually be asked to sign an agreement before the trip.
  • At special school events – If for example you’re at a school ball, the school will have authority over you.
  • Travelling to and from school – In general, you’re under the school’s control during journeys to and from school. This clearly includes when you’re travelling on school buses, but possibly also when you’re using public transport or walking or biking to and from school. You won’t be under the school’s control if you’re picked up or dropped off by your parents.
  • Damaging the school’s reputation – A school may be able to punish if you harm its reputation outside school hours – for example, if you made serious accusations online about school staff or other students. However, the courts haven’t decided this question so it’s unclear.

Whether a school has control over you when you’re outside the school gates could also depend on other factors like:

  • Distance from the school – For example, a school could punish you if you swore at a teacher just outside the school gate, or if someone who lived nearby told the school they saw a group of students taking fruit from their trees on their way home.
  • Safety issues – For example, a school could punish if you were seen near the school, just after school finished, throwing stones from a bridge on to cars below.