React carefully if child accused of wrongdoing at school
By Paul Russell, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor
If your child is accused of wrongdoing at school and facing an investigation that could result in suspension or expulsion, it’s important to react quickly but carefully, Barrie civil litigator Scott Hawryliw tells AdvocateDaily.com.
“The modern educational environment takes all allegations very seriously, and schools must investigate every one very thoroughly,” says Hawryliw, founder of SRH Litigation.
He says there are four key points to remember when it comes to accusations of misconduct in a school environment, whether it be elementary, high school, or post-secondary.
Don’t rush into giving a statement
“In trying to clean up the problems at school, a parent or a student might make admissions that may hurt their defence,” says Hawryliw.
“The starting point is to give some thought to whether this is something that could result in criminal charges, such as allegations of physical or sexual assault."
He says all educational institutions must investigate accusations of wrongdoing, and that includes hearing from the student about what happened, either through written or oral statements.
“Schools have a duty to take allegations seriously and to do a proper and thorough investigation,” Hawryliw says. "Plus, they must be able to defend their investigation as having filled those requirements.”
If the school is asking for a statement, parents can request an extension so that they have time to consult legal counsel, he says, though that time frame will probably be short.
“Parents may be left with a choice between missing a deadline to tell their child’s side to the school versus taking the chances of saying something that turns out to be damaging for a criminal defence,” Hawryliw says.
Seek legal advice for serious matters
“While it may be tempting to immediately give your child’s side of the story to the school, do not do so until you speak with a lawyer if there is a chance criminal charges may be laid,” he says.
Hawryliw notes that anything a student tells the school in a statement can be used against them later should the matter land in court.
“If your child says something that maybe they should not have, it can be tough to unring that bell,” he says.
A lawyer’s involvement may not be needed with less-serious allegations, Hawryliw says, but parents should definitely be there for the interview or the preparation of a statement, especially for elementary school children.
Many disputes between students involve social media, he says, so it is vital to preserve any relevant texts, Facebook posts or other forms of cyber communication.
“Sometimes that online evidence can disappear very quickly, and it's essential that you preserve it so that it can be used in your child’s defence in the future,” Hawryliw says.
Examine the school’s policies
All educational institutions have policies outlining expectations about student behaviour. These guidelines form the basis for the findings in internal investigations, he says.
“These policies are very broad, with wording that is usually a bit ambiguous,” Hawryliw says. “So it's important to look very carefully at the sections within the policy that the institution is relying on in a specific case, and how those have been applied to the facts."
He says a lawyer can ensure that the facts found in the investigation are applied to the school policy in a way that supports the conclusion.
Don’t underestimate the seriousness of any allegation
“Anything that happens in a school environment is taken very seriously by authorities, and rightly so,” Hawryliw says, adding that parents of the alleged victim will want assurances that the school investigated the matter in earnest.
“They want to see that the investigation is done thoroughly and that meaningful consequences are imposed when warranted,” Hawryliw says.