Academic sanctions

Academic sanctions are penalties that school officials use to penalize students for poor academic performances. Legally, school officials have the right to use academic sanctions when students perform poorly academically. Some examples of academic sanctions are academic probation, retention, expulsion, denial of course credit, changes in ranking, modifying honors, or failing. Courts routinely uphold academic sanctions, even though they recognize that when officials implement academic sanctions, there may be negative consequences for students’ futures: The sanctions may impact the students’ academic records, affect their school standing, and/or limit their access to future military or government jobs. Legal actions related to academic sanctions are discussed in this entry.

Sanctions for Academic Performance

In the United States, pursuant to the Tenth Amendment, management and control of public education are ultimately the responsibility of individual states. States have broad authority under their constitutions or under statutes or regulations that establish school systems and compulsory attendance laws to make and enforce rules pertaining to the daily operations of schools. As state actors, local school boards have the authority to define the offenses for which students may be disciplined or excluded from schools. Courts generally sustain the authority of school boards, through various officials, to impose academic sanctions, so long as they exercise their authority reasonably and their actions have a reasonable relation to some legitimate school purpose. State legislatures and courts have thus acknowledged academic sanctions as being within the educational management and control authority of states and local school boards.
The courts ordinarily uphold reasonable academic sanctions applied by school officials. These sanctions include the use of grades, placements, rankings, honors, or other forms of academic status to punish students for unacceptable behavior in violation of school rules. To this end, there is general agreement that grade reduction is acceptable as a form of discipline for poor academic performance. Other types of academic performance for which academic sanctions have been accepted include misbehaviors related to cheating and plagiarism. In fact, most school policies include statements of academic rules of conduct and the range of consequences for breaking these rules. Moreover, these policies are often incorporated into student handbooks provided to entire student bodies.
When school boards and their teachers use academic sanctions for poor academic performance, courts are reluctant to substitute their own judgments for those of educators in assessing student performance. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared that when judges review the substance of academic decisions, they should show great respect for the professional judgments of educators. Courts generally do not override school and faculty determinations unless they are such substantial departures from accepted academic norms that they constitute failures to exercise appropriate professional judgment. Consequently, school officials have broad discretionary powers in establishing academic standards, promulgating academic sanctions, and imposing these rules. Courts routinely uphold academic sanctions where they are reasonable insofar as they are rationally related to valid educational purposes or goals.

Sanctions for Nonacademic Reasons

There is some controversy related to the use of grade reductions and academic sanctions as discipline for nonacademic transgressions, such as significant absences. Insofar as student absences and truancy from school are growing concerns for school boards nationwide, many systems have promulgated policies including the use of grade reduction as a sanction for unapproved absences or truancies. The courts generally recognize the authority of local school boards to adopt uniform rules concerning attendance, as this is necessarily implied by state statutes defining the educational missions of schools.
Schools officials maintain that students cannot perform academic tasks satisfactorily if they are absent and that grades reflect not only class work but also class participation, which is affected by absences. As a result, many school systems have promulgated academic sanctions for excessive school absences; an example would be requiring grades to be lowered by one letter grade per class for unexcused absences.
As school officials continue to grapple with the serious problem of truancy, it is likely that boards will consider implementing academic sanctions related to serious absences. Courts have examined not only the constitutionality of these school rules but also the due process requirements related to their violation. In the case of absenteeism, courts typically look to whether sanctions are academic or disciplinary, often concluding that if sanctions are disciplinary in nature, educators must provide students with due process prior to imposing punishments. In all instances, schools must promulgate the academic sanctions in advance and notify students and their parents before implementing rules.
School boards have also applied academic sanctions for student misconduct. These sanctions often impact course credit, participation in after-school activities or sports, or participation in graduation ceremonies. Courts have reviewed school rules related to serious class disruptions, gross misbehavior, acting in unauthorized manners, or having unexcused absences. In doing so, courts generally conclude that as long as school regulations are reasonable and serve legitimate educational purposes, and as long as students are notified of the rules in advance, the resulting academic sanctions may remain in place. If academic sanctions are unrelated to academic conduct, appear unreasonable, are arbitrary, or are excessively disproportionate to students’ violation of school rules, courts generally do not uphold school sanctions.
In some cases, courts require school officials to apply due process prior to imposing academic sanctions. The courts have examined this notion on a case by case basis, routinely agreeing that school policies related to academic sanctions need to contain elements of due process associated with basic constitutional fairness. These due process requirements include fair and timely notice of the rules to students (and their parents) in advance, timely notice of charges against alleged offenders, an opportunity for the parties to prepare for hearings, hearings and decisions by a fair and impartial third party decision maker, the right to present evidence, and a limited right to confront witnesses and to challenge adverse evidence.
The concept of academic sanctions, which is applied in other contexts within schooling, is often incorporated into federal statutes related to education. By way of illustration, the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) mandates academic sanctions when school systems fail to comply with federal law. Under this law, if school boards are unable to demonstrate improvement over specified periods of time or fail to make adequate yearly progress, they may face academic sanctions delineated in the statute. State laws may impose similar sanctions on school systems.
Another arena where the concept of academic sanctions often applies is school athletics. Sports programs typically have academic standards that students must meet in order to be eligible to participate on sport teams. Should student athletes fail to meet those eligibility requirements, they or their teams may find they have incurred academic sanctions. In addition, when school teams compete in athletic events sponsored by or organized by athletic associations, there are often eligibility requirements. Eligibility requirements typically refer to minimum requirements for student-athletes’ grades and graduation rates, with school systems being held accountable for the academic success of their players.
School cases concerning alcohol, drugs, or weapons often invoke school penalties, including academic sanctions. To the extent that school boards are legally required to protect students under their care, pursuant to their establishment of schools and compulsory attendance statutes, officials usually maintain and implement rules that incorporate harsh penalties for the use or possession of dangerous substances or devices. Courts generally uphold academic sanctions within these contexts.
Vivian Hopp Gordon

See also Compulsory Attendance; Due Process; Goss v. Lopez; Grading Practices
Further Readings
First, P. F. (1994). Academic sanctions: No fair? The Education Digest, 59(6), 17–22.
Legal Citations
Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975).
John A. Campbell v. Board of Education of the Town of New Milford, 475 A.2d 289 (Conn. 1984).
No Child Left Behind Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 6301 et seq. (2002).