Lawsuit Highlights ‘Unacceptable Pattern’ Resulting from State’s Failure to Establish Statutory Due Process Protections
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed two lawsuits today against the Montgomery County Board of Education for arbitrarily expelling students in violation of their due process rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The complaint is the latest in a string of lawsuits the SPLC has filed against Alabama school districts for disregarding students’ due process rights in their exclusionary discipline practices.
Today’s lawsuits were filed in Montgomery County Juvenile Court on behalf of two students who were expelled from Robert E. Lee High School last year when cameras recorded the friends exchanging a cell phone moments after a shooting in the school’s gym. They were interrogated for hours, arrested and charged with possessing a handgun in connection with the shooting even though law enforcement officers did not find either student in possession of a gun. The students were acquitted of criminal charges following a delinquency hearing in the Montgomery County Juvenile Court.
While the students were detained in a youth facility for nine days immediately after their arrest, the school board held disciplinary proceedings for each student, and decided to expel the students 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 proceedings, they were unable to testify or present evidence to prove their innocence. They also did not have time to retain legal counsel.
“Allegations of misconduct damage students’ educational and employment opportunities. This is why, 45 years ago today, 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 SPLC attorney. “When the juvenile court provided our clients with the opportunity to be heard and present evidence in their delinquency proceeding, they were acquitted; but when they were denied that right by the school board, they were expelled,”
In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Goss v. Lopez that students facing suspension are entitled to notice and a hearing under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. 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 a fair hearing, as required by law.
The lawsuits filed today state that the Montgomery County Board of Education violated the law by denying the students due process during their disciplinary proceedings and relying upon insufficient evidence to render its decision. It also states that the school board failed to comply with its own disciplinary process and policies.
The Montgomery Public Schools Student Conduct Manual provides that students facing expulsion have a right to reasonable notice of the proposed action, charges and evidence against them; a fair hearing; legal representation; an opportunity to question evidence and witnesses; and present evidence in their defense. It also describes a process which allows students only five days to appeal an unfavorable decision.
The students seek a court order reversing the school board’s decisions, immediately reinstating them in Montgomery Public Schools (MPS) and a correction to their academic records. The students, who have been expelled from MPS for more than 10 months, also want the school district to reform its disciplinary policies and practices and compensate them for missed instruction.
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, 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 lawsuits reveal an unacceptable pattern across Alabama in which school districts needlessly trample on the rights of its students and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Alabama is the only state in the Southeast that lacks statutory due process protections for students facing long-term suspension or expulsion. Most states enacted laws to protect students from arbitrary discipline after Goss was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Alabama’s lack of statutory guidance has left its 138 school districts to develop their own policies and procedures for students facing exclusionary discipline, resulting in wildly different processes across the state. In some cases, like Montgomery Public Schools, school districts fail to follow even their own due process policies, the SPLC has found.