Handling a disciplinary investigation in school
I've been re-reading some of the chapters in this book recently and came across the very useful chapter on handling disciplinary investigations, the main points of which I list here (as much for my benefit as for anyone else's!) but I hope some others might find the advice useful.
- Prevention is better than cure. Disciplinary incidents happen in every school, no matter how well run. However they are likely to be less frequent and easier to deal with when they do occur if relations are good between staff, pupils and parents. Also if real efforts have been made - not just through slick PR - to engage the local community and a good amount of political capital has been built up by the Head and the SMT making difficult decisions will be easier. As Richardson says: 'you will reap the rewards of accumulated goodwill.'
- Timely reminders. Both pupils and staff need to be reminded periodically - at least once a year - about offences that will leave you with no choice but to get out the big guns. Doing this makes it much easier to make difficult decisions when the time comes.
- Check your paperwork. Good policies, legally checked and watertight help enormously when unpicking thorny disciplinary cases. It is worth also documenting how such incidents will be dealt with including details of how evidence will be gathered, how interviews will be carried out, the possibility of the need to segregate pupils and temporarily remove mobile phones.
- Revise polices annually. This can seem a chore, but doing so reminds senior managers of how such incidents are dealt with and what the school documents actually say.
- Include 'must expect'. Peppering your policies with phrases of the sort 'Pupils who engage in X style of behavior must expect the consequences to be Y' means you will have served fair warning that there are things on which the school will not compromise, but you still allow yourself wriggle room if you need it.
- Don't be prosecutor and judge. In most circumstances the Head is the person who will make the final decision, they should not, therefore, be involved in gathering evidence. This should be delegated to ensure no allegations of impropriety surface.
- Get writing. Interviewers and suspects should be asked to document events in writing and to date and sign these.
- Isolate pupils. In investigations involving more than one pupil this is often necessary to prevent corroboration. Make sure isolated pupils are held in comfort and that all their needs are attended to. You don't want to make a bad situation worse by being accused of high-handedness or dis-proportionality.
- Keep evidence safe. If the investigation spills out overnight the evidence should be kept safe in an agreed location so that there can be no suspicion of tampering.
- Inform parents early. Forewarned is forearmed. If you have to impose a heavy sanction having warned the parents that an investigation is underway - but that as yet you have reached no conclusion will make things easier when the time comes.. Be careful though that you are not pushed into revealing too much too soon. Play your cards close to your chest.
- Conduct interviews out of sight. Find somewhere where you are assured of privacy and are away from the prying eyes of staff and pupils. When conducting the interview:
- begin saying that you are open-minded and will not be the final judge (and make sure you won't be!)
- point out the seriousness of what you are investigating
- remain courteous and calm unless you believe you are being wilfully obstructed, or that a change of tone may get to the heart of the matter - but always remain very controlled
- don't ask leading questions
- don't give hasty or rash promises of anonymity
- offer a pupil being interviewed the chance of a member of staff, or possibly pupil who they choose to be present in support
Once you have got the information you need, pass it on up to the Head making it as easy as you can for him or her to digest and come to a decision.