05/12/2011

SPLC Sues Mobile, Ala., School System for Violating Students' Due Process Rights

The Mobile County (Ala.) Public School System has violated the constitutional rights of students by suspending them for months at a time over minor misbehavior without giving parents and guardians an opportunity to defend them, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by the SPLC.

The suit was filed on behalf of six students who have collectively missed more than 445 school days this academic year due to suspensions for apparent minor misbehavior such as un-tucked shirts, tardiness or failing to carry a school ID.  Most of them remain suspended. The students range from 13 to 18 years of age.

School administrators failed to provide any formal notice to the students' parents or guardians about the grounds for the suspensions or provide an opportunity to challenge the disciplinary action. The lawsuit says that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment entitles students to notice and a fair hearing where they can defend themselves before a long-term suspension or expulsion. Long-term suspensions in Mobile County Public Schools can range from 11 days until the end of the semester.

"Kicking a student out of school for months at a time is absolutely devastating to a child, their family and their chance for a future," said SPLC attorney Jadine Johnson. "Kicking them out without allowing them an opportunity to defend themselves is unacceptable – and unconstitutional."

Mary Simmons, whose great-grandson is one of the students named in the complaint, said the youth's school has been so unresponsive that officials refuse to even confirm why he was suspended. Simmons doesn't know how she can work with the school to resolve the matter if the school won't offer its side of the issue.

"The principal just called and said he was out for the rest of the year, but he wouldn't tell me what for," she said. "That's just not fair. If you won't tell me why, how can you put him out of school for months? He wants to be in school, but he feels like they don't want him there, and the more he gets behind, the worse it gets."

In addition to being denied this most basic constitutional right, these students are also being denied their right to an education. Students who are suspended miss valuable class time, creating major setbacks in their education and their emotional development.

The impact of these harsh discipline practices goes beyond a child and his or her family. The Mobile County Public School System has a serious graduation rate crisis. Less than 50 percent of youths in the school district graduate from high school. 

Research shows a clear and undeniable connection between suspensions and graduation rates. Numerous studies have shown that students who are suspended are much less likely to graduate from high school. And people who do not graduate from high school cost the community millions of dollars in lost economic activity, increased social costs and increased crime.

"This is a crisis for the entire Mobile community," said Brenda Juarez, a University of South Alabama professor who studies urban education. "We cannot set generation after generation of students up for failure and expect different results." 

Added SPLC attorney Marion Chartoff, "Pushing students out of school over minor misbehavior and calling it discipline is a misguided and dangerous policy. It doesn't make schools or our communities safer. It robs our students of an education. It robs them of their future. And it robs our state of a brighter future. It must stop."

Parents and students who have had similar experiences in the Mobile County Public School System are asked to call (855) 480-0548.