MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Montgomery County Board of Education voted to approve two settlement agreements with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) during a special meeting on Feb. 5. The agreements resolve two lawsuits filed last year on behalf of Lee High School students who were denied their due process rights and expelled after being falsely accused of possessing a gun on school campus in 2019.
Under the agreements, the Board will expunge the disciplinary expulsions completely from the students’ academic records and provide them with thousands of dollars’ worth of additional educational services to make up for the 14 months they were excluded from school. The services will allow the students to either catch up on the courses they missed and graduate on time or earn a GED at their choosing.
In January 2020, the SPLC sued the Montgomery County school board for violating the due process rights of the two students who were arrested and expelled from Lee High School after they were falsely accused of possessing a gun, which was in fact a cell phone. Even after the students were acquitted in juvenile court of these criminal accusations, the school board refused to allow them to return to school.
“People should care about this case because the same way it affected me, could happen to another student,” said JaMarius Patterson, one of the student plaintiffs. “I wish the school would have went off what the judge said when I was innocent.”
These lawsuits underscore the state’s failure to codify due process rights for Alabama students who are at risk of being excluded from school over alleged misconduct. It also highlights the need for alternatives to exclusionary discipline and better training for school staff.
“Without due process, our clients were excluded from a public education based on a false accusation and without a hearing to prove their innocence,” said SPLC Staff Attorney Claire Sherburne. “We know that our clients’ experiences are not unique because we continue to litigate and investigate similar cases across the state. Exclusionary discipline is an ineffective and antiquated strategy, but so long as schools continue with this practice there must be a state law to ensure a fair and consistent disciplinary process for all students. It’s time to reimagine the way schools discipline students in Alabama.”
More than 46 years ago, the United States Supreme Court decided Goss v. Lopez which held that students have a right to due process in matters of school discipline because “the risk of error is not at all trivial, and it should be guarded against[.]”
Alabama is the only state in the Southeast that lacks statutory due process protections for students facing long-term suspension or expulsion. Without a state law, each of the 138 school districts in Alabama is left to develop its own protections and procedures. This has resulted in haphazard, inconsistent and disproportionate disciplinary outcomes for students, particularly students of color. Last year, State Senator Rodger Smitherman introduced a bill that would fix this issue. It passed the Senate but failed to make it through the House due to the COVID-19 crisis which forced the legislative session to end early.