TROY, Ala. – Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed two complaints against the Pike County Board of Education for arbitrarily suspending students, in violation of their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. It is the fourth school district in Alabama the SPLC has sued for these violations. Alabama is the only state in the Southeast with no due process protections in state law for students facing suspension or expulsion.
“Students across Alabama continue to be excluded from school without regard for their due process rights, leading to unwarranted and unlawful suspensions and expulsions” said Michael Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s children’s rights project. “This is particularly troubling for Black students who are three times more likely to be excluded from school for minor and subjective infractions than their white peers. Education is an important aspect of a young person’s life and the decision to exclude them from school should be based in facts and evidence."
The complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, seek a court order reversing the wrongful suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both are Black and former students at Goshen High School (GHS). They were falsely accused of “smoking” in the school’s parking lot on Nov. 22, 2019. The students, both seniors at the time, denied the allegations and even took drug tests that showed they had no drugs in their system that day. But the school refused to consider this evidence.
RaQuan and Dakarai were immediately removed from school pending a hearing before the Superintendent’s Disciplinary Council, which is comprised of school district administrators. They had been out of school for a total of 12 days with no access to their schoolwork or school activities when they each received a hearing – both lasting less than 20 minutes – on Dec. 10.
The complaint describes how the district failed to provide the students proper notice, including details about the charges against them, evidence of wrongdoing, and a meaningful opportunity to be heard, present evidence of their own and question witnesses during their hearings.
“There was no proper investigation at all,” said Shatarra Pelton, Dakarai’s mother. “It was unorganized and overblown. The school was unable to produce any evidence other than hearsay.”
The district admitted they had no evidence proving the students had violated school board policy. Yet, the Council decided after a brief hearing to suspend the two high school seniors for the rest of the school year. They were placed in an alternative school where they received an inferior education and languished under harsh conditions.
“The alternative school was fenced in with barbed wires,” Dakarai said. “There were no windows and we were served cold food daily. We were treated like real criminals. But I did not do what they accused me of.”
RaQuan and Dakarai, now both 18, were well-liked by their teachers and peers. They both played on the school’s football and basketball teams and were making good grades in all their courses. Prior to their suspension in November, they had no disciplinary referrals.
On Jan. 13, the students appealed the Council’s decision to the Pike County Board of Education, and the board agreed to consider allowing the students to return to GHS if they participated in drug treatment classes, passed urine and hair follicle drug tests and maintained perfect attendance at the alternative school. After completing all the requirements, the students returned to school on Feb. 21 – three months after their removal.
“He had a rough senior year, to say the least,” said Tasha Martin, RaQuan’s mother. “He missed senior night, he missed everything.”
As a result of the school suspensions, Dakarai and RaQuan were not allowed to participate in senior and other school activities, including the sports they’d played their entire high school career. The suspensions caused them to miss opportunities for college recruiters to see them play during their senior year.
“They didn’t get to play not one game,” Ms. Martin said. “They had some coaches visit them while they were in alternative school but when the coaches found out that they couldn’t go back to school, they stopped coming. Our families were devastated; sometimes me and Ms. Pelton would be on the phone and just cry to each other. It has been really tough.”
“I want schools to understand that it’s not just a moment you’re ruining, you’re ruining a lifetime,” Ms. Pelton said. “With no factual basis, only an unproven accusation, you have just completely deterred a student’s life. Most schools say that they are there for their students, but you are showing them the total opposite.”
During the 2019-2020 school year, Pike County Schools referred 49 students to a disciplinary hearing. Of those, 48 students were either suspended or expelled, as a result. Black students made up 80 percent of the referrals even though they comprise less than 50 percent of the total student population. On average, Black students make up 77 percent of all students referred for disciplinary hearings in the district.
"Because suspensions and expulsions are ineffective and harmful to both students and school climate, they should always be based in facts and evidence when schools take this action," Tafelski said. "That is why it is critical that Alabama districts ensure students receive the due process they are entitled under the Constitution, and that the state ensures a fair process for all students by enacting due process protections under state law.”