Introduction

Children on the autism spectrum may face suspension from school. This is the decision taken by school that they are temporarily unable to attend the school premises. Here, we explain the reasons a child can be suspended, the suspension process, what to do if you disagree with the suspension and disability discrimination.

Reasons a child can be suspended

A suspension can only be made by the principal of a school, or the vice-principal or other member of staff acting in this role in their absence.

Schools must have a discipline policy which explains the required standards for pupils and under what circumstances suspension may occur. The purpose of a suspension is punishment for breach of the school discipline policy. Guidance from the Department of Education states that a decision to suspend a pupil should only be taken:

  • when allowing the pupil to remain in school would pose a serious threat to the health and safety of other pupils and staff
  • after a range of strategies to modify the pupil’s behaviour have been tried and failed
  • where there have been serious breaches of the school's discipline policy
  • after all relevant facts and evidence have been examined and the pupil and others involved have given their version of events
  • when a responsible adult is available at home to receive the pupil.

Suspension is not suitable for minor breaches of school rules, such as:

  • failure to complete homework
  • lateness or truancy
  • breaches of school uniform rules
  • incidents that occur outside school hours and off school premises (except school activities).

In addition to this, a pupil can't be suspended because of poor academic performance.

Guidance also states that a decision to suspend should only be used when all other strategies have persistently failed.

The suspension process

Your child’s school will have a scheme that explains the procedures to be followed when a pupil is suspended. You may wish to contact your child’s school or Education Authority (EA) regional office or Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) for a copy.

If your child is suspended from school, the principal must immediately give you written notification of the reasons for this and the length of time they will be suspended. They will also invite you to visit the school to discuss the suspension and notify the EA and chairman of the school’s Board of Governors (and local CCMS diocesan office if your child attends a Catholic maintained school).

Length of suspension 

A pupil may be suspended for one or more fixed periods of up to five days. This can only be extended by the prior approval from the Chairman of the Board of Governors. Written notification of reasons and extension period must be given to parents and the EA or CCMS. Suspensions must not exceed 45 days in any one school year. 

The length of the suspension should be proportionate to the incident or offence and take individual circumstances into account. It should be for the shortest time possible to prevent difficulties with reintegration.

Suspension for an indefinite period of time or for any purpose other than punishment for disciplinary reasons is unlawful.

Informal suspensions 

Your child's school may tell you that your child has been informally suspended, or ask you to pick your child up from school without following the correct procedures.

You may think this is in your child's best interests and not want it recorded on their school record.

However, the school should always follow suspension procedures. If the school does try to do this then speak to your child's school and let them know that:

  • they should not be suspending your child in this way
  • informal suspension is unlawful
  • any suspension should follow the correct procedures
  • you aren't prepared to pick your child up from school or accept them home. 

If your child is suspended more than once

Suspension should always be a last resort. If your child has been suspended on more than one occasion, especially as a result of his or her behaviour, this could suggest that the right support is not in place. 

For example, if your child is suspended for the way they behave it is important to look at why he or she is behaving in that way. Is it anxiety? Are their needs being fully addressed and supported?
 
If you feel that correct support is not in place, arrange to discuss your concerns with the school. 

Our Education Rights Service can offer further advice and information. 
 

Special educational needs and suspension

Your child may still be suspended if they have special educational needs. However, their special educational needs as well as their age, maturity, home life and other relevant circumstances should be considered before a decision is taken.

You may feel that your child’s suspension is unfair and that if more appropriate support was in place for your child it could have been prevented.

Read more about getting extra support in school.

Education during and after suspension

Your child's school must continue to provide education while they are is suspended. School work should be sent home for your child to complete, and then marked.

The school should liaise with you before, during and after the suspension about your child’s education and reintegration to school.

Your child should be encouraged to make a fresh start and arrangements should be made to help them catch up with work.

Disagreeing with the suspension

There is currently no independent review or appeals system against a child’s suspension from school.

You may wish to use the meeting to discuss your child’s suspension as an opportunity to explain your reasons for disagreeing with the decision. 

To help prepare for the meeting ask for copies of:
  • your child’s school record and any education plans they  have (eg IEP and/or statement)
  • the school’s discipline and special educational needs policies and scheme which outlines their suspension procedures
  • any witness statements, including your child’s, if the suspension was as a result of an incident.

You may also want to:

  • take a friend or advisor for support during the meeting
  • write down what you would like to say and read it out
  • make a list of questions you have and tick them off as the meeting progresses.

In limited circumstances, legal action against a child’s suspension from school may be possible. Advice from a solicitor should be sought for this.

Disability discrimination

In some cases, a school’s decision to suspend can be challenged by making a disability discrimination claim to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST).

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 defines a disabled person as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

A disability discrimination claim can be made if the child concerned is defined as having a disability and:
  • They have unlawfully been treated less favourably than their non-disabled peers; and/or
  • Reasonable steps have not been taken to avoid putting them at a disadvantage compared with non-disabled peers. 

To claim that your child has suffered disability discrimination as a result of being suspended from school, you should be able to show that the following apply: 

  • the suspension was related to your child's disability
  • the suspension was not justified and there were other actions the school could have taken, rather than suspension
  • the school could have taken steps to prevent the situation that led to the suspension. 

Any claim should be lodged within six months from when the suspension took place. 

Read more about disability discrimination in Northern Ireland

Further help from our charity

The National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service can provide information, support and advice on educational provision and entitlements for children and young people on the autism spectrum.

Useful reading

Pastoral Care in Schools: Promoting Positive Behaviour. Department of Education (2001).

Supplement to the Code of Practice on the Identification & Assessment of Special Educational Needs. Department of Education (2005)

Websites

Department of Education
Tel: 028 9127 9279

Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST) 
Tel. 028 9072 4887

Equality Commission for Northern Ireland
Tel: 028 90 500 600
 
Last reviewed: 15 July 2016.