Student Rights

Free legal help for students, parents & caregivers

Punishments

Written work

Any written work the school gives as a punishment, such as lines and essays, should be reasonable and should take into account the particular student and their ability. For example, a dyslexic student shouldn’t be punished by being given extra writing to do.

Detentions

If you’re given a detention outside school hours, it’s good practice for schools to give your parents advance notice, so they can make any necessary arrangements. The school can assume that your parents agree to the detention if they don’t tell the school they object.

If you’re given a lunchtime detention, you should still be given enough time to have lunch and go to the toilet.

New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s 22

It’s quite common for schools to give a whole class a detention – “until someone owns up” or “because so many have been talking”. However, these whole class detentions may breach the Bill of Rights, which says a person can’t be detained “arbitrarily” – that is, without a good reason.

Extra work around school

This can involve things like picking up rubbish, or sweeping and general cleaning.

However, this work shouldn’t be done in normal class time and you must be given the equipment necessary for the job – for example, gloves for dealing with unpleasant rubbish. The school must make sure you’re safe.

Time-out, or sending students out of class

Education Act 1989, s 3

Although “time-outs” can be helpful for both the student and the teacher, by giving a chance for the situation to cool down, they must be used carefully and not for long periods. Everyone in New Zealand over the age of five is entitled to an education, and sending students outside the classroom may violate this right if this is done too often.

When deciding whether to use a time-out, teachers should take into account the psychological impact this would have on the particular student. Relevant factors will be how long the student will be kept isolated from other students and what the time-out room is like – that is, how big it is, and whether it has natural light and proper ventilation.

Taking away privileges

A school shouldn’t take away a privilege from you if this could affect your education. For example, you shouldn’t be punished by being kept back from a trip to see a play or film that’s part of the English syllabus. The sorts of privileges that can be taken away are:

Behaviour management programmes

Programmes that help students learn self-discipline or change their behaviour – like anger-management and drug-awareness programmes – can be creative ways of helping students with behavioural problems. However, they shouldn’t be seen as a form of punishment but rather as a potentially effective tool for changing behaviour.

Being told off (reprimanded) in front of the principal and your parents

This can be compared to a “caution” under the youth justice system when young people are warned at the police station by a senior police officer in front of their parents. In the school situation, a reprimand can take place in the principal’s office.

Daily reports

The school can monitor a student’s behaviour through daily reports. Teachers fill in a report card and at the end of each day show it to the principal, deputy principal, dean or a nominated teacher.

Behavioural contracts

Behavioural contracts are usually drawn up as a condition when a student goes back to school after they’ve been suspended (see “Stand-downs, suspensions and expulsions”).

The contract should be negotiated with you and your parents, rather than simply being imposed on you. It should be a two-way agreement, recognising the school’s duty to provide you with guidance and counselling as well as the conditions that you and your parents agree to.

The contract should say exactly what’s expected of you, and set out some goals. These should be reasonable, realistic and achievable – you shouldn’t be set up to fail.

If you breach the contract, the principal may ask the board of trustees to hold another meeting to discuss the situation. It shouldn’t be a condition of the contract that your parents have to withdraw you from the school if you don’t keep to the contract. Each case must be treated individually. The only way a school can suspend, exclude or expel you is through the school suspension/expulsion process (see “When and how can a student be prevented from attending school?”).

Punishments that are illegal or suspect

Physical (“corporal”) punishments

Education Act 1989, s 139A
Summary Offences Act 1981, s 9

Physical punishments are illegal – this includes all correction or punishment involving physical force, like hitting or slapping you, or using a strap or cane, or throwing things at you like pens or whiteboard erasers. Any deliberate use of force, or attempted force, against you could be an assault and therefore could justify a criminal complaint to the police, even if you’re not hurt.

If you have in fact been injured, however, your parents should promptly take you to a doctor for a medical certificate. This can be used as part of a complaint to the school, or as evidence if criminal charges are laid.

Sending the student home

Your school can’t send you home, even if only for a day or part of a day, unless the principal uses the formal stand-down or suspension process, and the necessary grounds for stand-down or suspension exist.

You shouldn’t be sent home for trivial reasons like an incorrect uniform, or because the school doesn’t have the resources to deal with your special needs. These aren’t grounds that can justify a stand-down or suspension. The process and necessary grounds are explained in the chapter on stand-downs and suspensions from page 64.

Punishments that are cruel or degrading

New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s 9

Cruel or degrading punishments are against the Bill of Rights. Examples include a teacher putting you down in front of the class, or making you stand or hold your arms above your head for a long period. Asking you to make an apology in front of the whole school might also fall into this category.

“In-school” suspensions

An “in-school suspension” is when the school, rather than sending you home, gets you to do work around the school for a day or two, instead of attending class. Arguably, this type of “suspension” is illegal, because if you’re attending school you have the right to take part in educational activities there.

However, if you’ve been officially suspended, it’s legal for the school to ask you to return to school to participate in counselling or an educational programme that will help deal with your behaviour. A principal can also allow a suspended student to return to school to sit exams, if the parents have asked for this.

Using the power to excuse attendance as a means of punishment

Education Act 1989, s 27

Principals have the power to excuse a student from attending school for short periods (up to five days) if the principal thinks this is justified – this might be used, for example, to allow you to attend a funeral or tangihanga. Schools can’t use this power to send you home for misbehaving: students who misbehave can only be removed from school if the principal uses the formal stand-down or suspension process (again, see “Stand-downs, suspensions and expulsions”).

Taking action about illegal or inappropriate punishments

What can I do if I’m not happy about a punishment?

If you’re not happy about a punishment that your school has given you, you and your parents could raise this with the school.

Parents should make sure they’re aware of all the facts, and should ask the school for an explanation.

You could suggest alternative types of discipline that you think will be more appropriate.

Outside agencies that can help

If you’re not happy with the school’s response to your complaint about a punishment, you could contact an agency who can help you, such as:

For contact details, see “Useful contacts”.

It may be that the punishment was illegal, or breached the school’s charter or the National Administration Guidelines. The Student Rights Service, the Children’s Commissioner or your local Community Law Centre can tell you about this.

Note: The Education Review Office (ERO) is a body that checks whether a school is running as it should. If you send ERO a written complaint, they’ll file it and then check these concerns when its officers visit the school. However, if the complaint is particularly serious, or a number of students or parents voice the same concern, ERO can order a special audit of the school, or bring a planned audit forward.

If the punishment was legal, but you think it was too severe or inappropriate, or that your version of events wasn’t taken into account, you should approach the teacher concerned. If you’re not satisfied with the explanation, complain to the principal. You’re also entitled to take your concerns to the board of trustees – you should do this in writing and address your letter to the chairperson.