08/15/2012

Alabama’s Mobile County public schools continue to violate student rights

More than a year ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center described in a federal lawsuit how students in Alabama’s Mobile County public schools are suspended for minor infractions for months at a time without the constitutionally required notice and hearing.

Apparent misbehavior such as failing to carry a school ID – or even an untucked shirt – resulted in suspensions that pushed students out of class and onto the streets until the end of the semester, or longer. Parents and guardians weren’t provided an opportunity to challenge the lengthy suspensions.

Sadly, nothing has really changed in Mobile County public schools. While the school district responded to the SPLC’s lawsuit by adopting a new policy, its leadership has done little to ensure the new policy is followed. As a result, administrators across the school district continue to violate the constitutional rights of students by meting out lengthy suspensions without giving the required notice and hearing.

The SPLC describes how the school district officials continue to turn a blind eye to this problem in an amended complaint recently filed in its federal civil rights lawsuit against the Mobile County Public School System.

“A year after we filed our case, we’re still seeing school administrators targeting struggling kids and kicking them out of school for minor infractions without proper notice or a hearing,” said Marion Chartoff, a senior staff attorney with the SPLC. “Top district officials know that school administrators are violating the district’s policy, but few seem to care. It's extremely disappointing that the district’s leadership has not put a stop to this.”

The amended complaint, filed on behalf of eight students, describes how Mobile school administrators routinely impose long-term suspensions without providing proper notice to the child’s parent or guardian about the grounds for the suspension and the date of a hearing. It also explains a widespread practice of principals failing to hold required due process hearings to give the student and parent an opportunity to challenge the long-term suspension.

The amended complaint also describes the district’s failure to investigate the violations of students’ rights and its failure to adequately supervise and train school administrators on due process requirements.

Under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, schools must give students notice and a fair hearing where they may present evidence and arguments in their defense before any suspension of more than 10 days or expulsion. Yet Mobile schools’ own records suggest that hundreds of students have not been afforded these basic rights over the last three years.

“A lot of Mobile school administrators are making snap decisions to suspend students and deny them months of education, often for things like skipping class, talking back and tardiness,” Chartoff said. “These short-sighted decisions not only deny students their constitutional rights, but too often cut short their entire education.”

Last school year alone, school administrators imposed over 450 long-term suspensions – often for minor infractions like repeated tardiness. Long-term suspensions in Mobile County Public Schools can last from 11 days until the end of the semester, and many students receive no education during this time.

The SPLC originally filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in May 2011 against the Mobile County Public School System on behalf of six students who missed more than 445 school days in one academic year due to suspensions for apparent minor misbehavior such as untucked shirts or failing to carry a school ID.

Numerous studies have shown that students who are suspended are much less likely to graduate from high school. And students who do not graduate from high school cost the community millions of dollars in lost economic activity, increased social costs and increased crime;