Discipline and rules
School punishments that are legal
The following punishments are legal:
- written work
- extra work around school
- time-out, or being sent out of class
- taking away privileges
- behaviour management programmes
- being told off “reprimanded”
- daily reports
- behavioural contracts.
These are explained more below.
Any written work the school gives you as a punishment, such as lines and essays, should be reasonable and should be appropriate for your ability. For example, a dyslexic student shouldn’t be punished by being given extra writing to do.
If you’re given a detention outside school hours, your school should tell your parents or guardians in advance, so they can make any necessary arrangements. The school can assume that your parents or guardians agree to the detention if they don’t tell the school that they have a problem.
If you’re given a lunchtime detention, you should still be given enough time to eat lunch and go to the toilet.
Whole class detentions not usually lawful
It’s quite common for schools to give the whole class a detention – “until someone owns up” or “because so many have been talking”. Whole class detentions may breach the Bill of Rights, which says a person can’t be held against their will without a good reason “arbitrarily”).
Extra work around school
This can involve things like picking up rubbish, or sweeping and general cleaning.
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 being sent out of class
Time-outs must be used carefully and not for long periods. Time-outs can be helpful for both you and the teacher, by giving a chance for the situation to cool down. Everyone in New Zealand over the age of five is entitled to an education. Sending students outside the classroom can break this law if this is done too often.
Teachers should take into account the impact this would have on you when deciding whether to use a time-out. Relevant factors are how long you’ll be kept separated from other students, and what the time-out room is like – for example, 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 curriculum. The sorts of privileges that can be taken away are:
- going to a sports game
- going to a school dance (but only if it’s one organised by the school, rather than by, for example, the Parent Teachers Association or another group as a fundraising exercise)
- going on a class outing that isn’t part of the curriculum, like a picnic.
Behaviour management programmes
Programmes that are supposed to help you learn self-discipline or improve your behaviour – like anger-management and drug-awareness programmes. These shouldn’t be used by the school as a form of punishment, but as a potentially helpful way to teach you more about how to cope.
Being told off (“reprimanded”)
This usually means you and your family are called into the principal’s office and the principal tells you off in front of your parent or guardian.
The school can monitor your 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 are usually drawn up as a condition when a student goes back to school after they’ve been suspended. See the chapter, “Stand-downs, suspensions exclusions, and expulsions”
The contract should be negotiated with you and your parents and whānau, rather than simply given to 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 and whānau 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 might ask the school board to hold another meeting to discuss the situation. It shouldn’t be a condition of the contract that you must be taken out of the school if you don’t keep to the contract.
Punishments that are against the law
The following punishments are illegal:
- physical punishments
- sending you home (“kiwi suspensions”)
- punishments that are “cruel or degrading”
- in-school suspensions
- being “excused” by the principal.
These are explained more below.
Physical punishments (“corporal punishments”)
All physical punishments are against the law. This includes any and all 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 making a criminal complaint to the police, even if you’re not hurt.
If you have been injured, your whānau 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 the police decide to charge the teacher.
Sending you home (“kiwi suspensions”)
Your school can’t send you home unless you are being stood down or suspended.
If you are sent home, the right process needs to be followed. See the chapter “Stand-downs, suspensions, exclusions and expulsions”
Punishments that are “cruel or degrading”
“Cruel or degrading” means punishments that are humiliating or undignified. This is against the Bill of Rights. Some examples include a teacher putting you down in front of the class, making you stand or hold your arms above your head for a long period, or asking you to make an apology in front of the whole school.
An “in-school suspension” is when the school 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 learning activities there.
If you’ve been officially suspended, it’s legal for the school to ask you to return to school to go to counselling or a programme that will help deal with your behaviour. A principal can also allow a suspended student to return to school to sit exams, if a parent or guardian has asked for this.
Being “excused” by the principal
Principals have the power to excuse you from attending school for short periods (up to five days) if it’s justified – for example, to allow you to attend a funeral or tangihanga. They can’t use this power to send you home as a form punishment.
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 teacher or school has given you, you and your parents or guardians could raise this with the school by talking to your teacher, the dean, or principal. If you aren’t happy with how they handle the issue, you can go to the school board. See the chapter, “Raising concerns and making complaints”
Make sure the board are aware of all the facts and 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 any of the following agencies for support:
- the Office of the Children’s Commissioner
- your local Community Law Centre
- your local Citizens Advice Bureau
- the Student Rights Service 0800 499 488
- a specialist advocacy service like IHC or CCS
- the Education Review Office (ERO).
For contact details, see “Where to go for more support”
The Student Rights Service, the Children’s Commissioner or your local Community Law Centre can help you figure out if a punishment was illegal, or breached the school’s charter/strategic plan.
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 several 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 harsh or inappropriate, or that your version of events wasn’t considered, you and your whānau could approach the teacher who was involved. If you’re not satisfied with their explanation, complain to the principal. You’re also entitled to take your concerns to the school board- you should do this in writing and address your letter to the chairperson.