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SPLC sues Alabama school district for violating students’ due process rights after cell phone is mistaken for gun

Andre and his friend were taking turns on a cell phone, playing a video game called Last Day on Earth: Survival – about staying alive on a zombie-infested planet – when a real-life gunshot rang out.

The teenagers, who were students at Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Alabama, rushed out of the school’s gymnasium with their peers. When they reached the parking lot with the other students, Andre’s friend gave his cell phone back to him.

Video surveillance captured the exchange, and the boys were accused of possessing a handgun.

They were each taken into custody, interrogated overnight without a parent or lawyer in the room, and expelled from school. Even after the boys were acquitted in juvenile court, they were not allowed to return to school.

Andre, whose name has been changed in this story to protect his identity, entered an alternative school that will not allow him to earn enough credits to enter the 11th grade next year – meaning he would have to repeat the 10th grade if he returns to Montgomery Public Schools (MPS). His friend is currently pursuing a GED diploma.

The SPLC filed two lawsuits this month against the Montgomery County Board of Education on the grounds that it violated the boys’ due process rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The complaints are the latest in a string of lawsuits the SPLC has filed against school districts in Alabama for disregarding students’ due process rights in their exclusionary disciplinary practices.

“Allegations of misconduct damage students’ educational and employment opportunities. This is why, 45 years ago, the United States Supreme Court held that a student’s public education must be protected by due process to help ensure fair and just outcomes for students,” said Claire Sherburne, an SPLC attorney. “When the juvenile court provided our clients with the opportunity to be heard and present evidence, they were acquitted; but when they were denied that right by the school board, they were expelled.”

Students in Alabama are routinely deprived of basic due process protections when they face long-term suspension, expulsion or other exclusionary discipline from school. Although MPS’ disciplinary policy guarantees certain procedural safeguards to students who face long-term suspension or expulsion, MPS fails to follow its own policy, according to the lawsuits.

As a result, students like the plaintiffs suffer severe and arbitrary disciplinary consequences.

Falsely accused

On Feb. 26, 2019, Andre and his friend were in the Robert E. Lee High School gymnasium for their fourth-period gym class, taking turns playing the same character on a video game on Andre’s cell phone, according to the lawsuit and interviews that the SPLC conducted.

During the class, a third student fired a gun.

When they heard the gunfire, Andre and his friend ran out of the gym and into the school parking lot with a school coach and other students. While standing in the parking lot, the friend returned Andre’s cell phone to him.

After standing outside for about five minutes, the boys returned to the gym with the other students. The school was placed on lockdown.

During the lockdown, law enforcement officers and school administrators searched the boys and the other students in the gym. None of them, including Andre and his friend, were found in possession of a gun.

Meanwhile, law enforcement officers and school administrators reviewed the exterior video surveillance footage and saw the exchange of the cell phone between Andre and his friend in the parking lot.

Law enforcement officers arrested both boys. They also arrested and questioned numerous other students from the gym class.

After their arrest, Andre and his friend were immediately moved from the school to the Montgomery County Criminal Investigation Division, where they were held in the adult jail. They were interrogated separately and overnight for approximately 12 hours without food or water, and without their parents or lawyers to represent them. 

“At the time when I was in the holding cell, I was mad because they got me in this cell box, I didn’t eat, I didn’t have no water, and I was really ready to go home. I was frustrated and angry,” Andre said.

The boys were each charged with possession of a handgun and terroristic threats based on the video of them exchanging the phone.

The next day, the boys were transported from the adult jail to the Montgomery County Youth Facility, where they were detained for nine days. They were not released until March 7 to await trial.

During a hearing on May 10, the boys were acquitted of the charges. An investigating officer at the hearing testified that no gun was ever found on either of the boys.

Yet their expulsion still stood.

Andre was in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at the school and was training to become a wide receiver on the football team. His friend had played on the varsity and junior varsity football teams and had hoped to get an athletic scholarship to college.

Those dreams shattered when the boys were expelled.

Due process violated

The boys were detained in a youth facility for nine days after their arrest, according to the lawsuits that were filed Jan. 22 in Montgomery County Juvenile Court.

While the boys were detained, the school board held separate disciplinary proceedings for each student on the matter, and decided to expel them based only on an administrative summary by the school’s principal that falsely claimed the students had a gun.

Because the students were detained in a youth facility and provided little or no notice of the disciplinary proceedings, they were unable to testify or present evidence at the hearing to prove their innocence. They also did not have time to retain legal counsel.

The Montgomery Public Schools Student Conduct Manual provides that students facing expulsion have a right to reasonable notice of the proposed action, as well as the charges and evidence against them.

They are also entitled under the conduct manual to a fair hearing, legal representation, an opportunity to question evidence and witnesses, and an opportunity to present evidence in their defense. The conduct manual also describes a process that allows students only five days to appeal an unfavorable decision.

In the lawsuits, the students are seeking a court order reversing the school board’s decisions and immediately reinstating them in Montgomery Public Schools because they have been expelled from MPS for almost one year.  They also want a correction to their academic records. Additionally, the students want the school district to reform its disciplinary policies and practices and compensate them for missed instruction. 

The lawsuits rest on a case that the U.S. Supreme Court decided 45 years ago.

In Goss v. Lopez, the Supreme Court held on Jan. 22, 1975, that students facing suspension are entitled to notice and a hearing under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

After Goss was decided, most states enacted laws to protect students from arbitrary discipline – many far exceeding the rights established under Goss. Alabama is the only state in the Southeast that lacks any statutory due process protections for students facing long-term suspension or expulsion.

‘School-to-prison pipeline’

With no statutory guidance, each of Alabama’s 138 school districts is left to develop its own policies and procedures for students facing exclusionary discipline, resulting in wildly different processes statewide. In some cases, like that of MPS, school districts fail to follow even their own policies related to due process, the SPLC has found. 

Over the past year, the SPLC has defended this right on behalf of students across Alabama who were excluded from school for 10 days or more without proper notice and without a fair hearing, even though both are required by law.

Removing students from the classroom is costly, ineffective and increases the likelihood that Alabama youth will end up in the juvenile or adult justice system – also known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This practice shatters the student’s opportunity for higher education and employment. What’s more, students of color and students with disabilities bear the brunt of this failed approach – unfortunately without adequate due process.

Last May, the SPLC sued the Athens City Schools Board of Education after two high school seniors were expelled and barred from graduation without adequate due process or proof that the students violated the district’s student conduct manual. In October, the SPLC sued the Elmore County Board of Education on behalf of a student who was expelled and deprived of due process in her disciplinary proceeding.  

“Children have rights, and those rights do not end when they enter a school setting,” said Brittany Barbee, an SPLC attorney. “Due process is about getting to the truth of what happened so that students are not unfairly pushed out of their classrooms or otherwise punished. These latest lawsuits reveal an unacceptable pattern across Alabama in which school districts needlessly trample on the rights of their students and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.”

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