12/14/2009

SPLC Sues to Protect Rights of Teen Expelled for Tossing Coin on School Bus

The Southern Poverty Law Center today sued a Mississippi school district for violating the constitutional rights and derailing the promising academic and athletic career of a high school student over a tossed penny on a school bus.

School officials in Hinds County suspended, then expelled a Terry High School 10th grader and reassigned him to an alternative school where he receives instruction from a teacher for only half his classes. The other half of his schedule he spends alone, in front of a computer, teaching himself the course material.

"The Hinds County School District has inexplicably cut short the life chances of this young man for tossing a penny on a school bus," said Courtney Bowie, director of the SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project (MYJP) and lead attorney in the case. "The district's determination to throw this young man away was reflected throughout the disciplinary process, during which the district repeatedly violated its own rules."

Filed today in Hinds County Chancery Court in Jackson, the lawsuit claims the school district failed to follow its own rules as it targeted the 16-year-old boy, identified as A.H. in the complaint, and coerced a false confession through threats and intimidation.

The school's actions stemmed from an incident that occurred while A.H. was riding the school bus home from Terry High this past September. During the ride, A.H. and five other students were tossing coins back and forth. A penny landed on the bus driver, who was not injured.

The school district subjected A.H. to a nearly hour-long interrogation during which the school's assistant principal threatened to pursue delinquency charges and call police unless he confessed, according to the lawsuit. Though A.H. said he did not throw the coin that landed on the bus driver, the school official pressured him to provide a false confession without notifying his parents or explaining his rights.

With his transfer to the Main Street Alternative School in Bolton, A.H. will not graduate with his class and is not permitted to set foot on the Terry High School campus. A.H. is a good student who has worked diligently to pursue his dream of attending college on a basketball scholarship. Before the school district wrongfully reassigned A.H., he was slated for a spot on the varsity team. Now, with the move to the alternative school, he will not be allowed to play basketball this year and/or in the 2010-11 school year, putting a collegiate career in jeopardy.

Among the various violations of their own standards and rules, school district officials repeatedly failed to provide A.H., his parents and his attorney with video surveillance footage they claimed showed A.H.'s guilt.

The lawsuit says that A.H. will suffer serious repercussions because of the expulsion.

"Students who are warehoused in Mississippi's alternative schools frequently suffer a lifetime of adverse consequences, including a denial of educational services and challenges earning a high school diploma," said MYJP policy specialist Meigan Thompson.

Research has shown that those who drop out are more likely to have been suspended or expelled than their peers who remained in school through graduation. Mississippi has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, and school districts across the state have developed comprehensive drop-out prevention plans.

"Mississippi's school districts must commit to school discipline practices that build on the strengths of our students and support their educational attainment — instead of pushing children out of school for minor infractions." Bowie said. "As this case illustrates, if Mississippi continuously fails to embrace school discipline reform all efforts to reduce the dropout rate will fail."