How to: Control and discipline of students in schools

Introduction

The EDUCATION ACT 1989 and relevant regulations deal specifically with some areas of school discipline. For example, the Act prohibits corporal punishment, and the Act and regulations contain detailed provisions about stand-downs, suspensions and expulsions.

However, other areas of discipline and control – such as dress codes and the question of the right to search students – are not specifically provided for, and therefore the precise extent of schools' powers in these areas are not fully clear. It would seem that these areas fall within the general power of school Boards of Trustees to control and manage their schools.

School boards are given very wide statutory powers of control and management. The Act gives them "complete discretion" to control the management of their schools as they think fit, and also gives them power to make bylaws that they think are necessary or desirable to control and manage the school.

Rules for dress and appearance

As well as there being no specific statutory guidance about areas such as rules for dress and appearance, there are very few court decisions dealing with them – especially since Boards of Trustees were introduced in the late 1980s and the right of "freedom of expression" was enacted in the NEW ZEALAND BILL OF RIGHTS ACT 1990.

The ability of school boards to impose uniform codes under their general powers of management must be weighed against the right of freedom of expression in the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights says that the rights contained within it are not absolute but are subject to limitations that are reasonable in a free and democratic society. Accordingly, the right of students to express themselves is subject to reasonable limitations that are necessary for the management of the school.

Decisions of the courts indicate that they would probably be reluctant to intervene and substitute their own judgement as to what is "reasonable" for that of a school board. In the case of a court challenge to the imposition of compulsory uniforms, it is likely therefore that the courts would defer to the school's decision that this was a legitimate and reasonable measure in the interests of running the school.

However, the particular process by which compulsory uniforms are introduced and the precise contents of a uniform code may be more susceptible to legal challenge on the grounds of unreasonableness.

What measures can a school take to discipline their students?

It would seem that a power to keep students after school in detention is implied in the Board of Trustees' general power to manage the school.

In more serious cases, a school principal is specifically empowered to stand down a student for several days, or the Board of Trustees may suspend a student for a longer period. In the most serious cases, the board may permanently "exclude" the student (if under 16) or "expel" the student (if 16 or over).

For more detail on these measures, see How to: Stand-downs, suspensions and expulsions from schools.

Can schools use corporal punishment to discipline students?

No. Corporal punishment in schools is illegal – the EDUCATION ACT 1989 prohibits state and registered private schools from using force towards students as a means of correction or punishment.

Search and confiscation

This is an area in which the law is not clear, but it seems that schools probably do have a power to search students in some cases. However, they must have reasonable grounds for the search and carry it out in a reasonable manner. See How to: Search and confiscation in schools.

Discrimination

The HUMAN RIGHTS ACT 1993 prohibits schools from denying a student access to any benefits or services that the school provides, or excluding a person as a student or subjecting him or her to any other detriment, if this is done on the basis of any of the grounds of discrimination in the Act.

These grounds of discrimination are:

  • sex, marital status, religious belief, ethical belief, colour, race, and ethnic or national origins, and
  • from 1 December 2001, disability, age, political opinion, employment status, family status, and sexual orientation

However, some exceptions apply: see "Discrimination by schools" in How to: Enrolment and attendance at schools.

For how to make a complaint, see How to complain about discrimination to the Human Rights Commission.

Cautionary notes
  • Court challenges to decisions of Boards of Trustees can be expensive and time-consuming. Further, the indications are that the courts would often be likely to defer to the board's judgment. A more practical and effective means of challenging a school board's decision would be to enlist the support of other parents and lobby the members of the board. Elections to Boards of Trustees are held every three years, and may provide important opportunities for concerned parents to influence school policy.


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