On behalf of six students at the Sophie B. Wright Charter School in Orleans Parish, La., the SPLC sought an injunction in state court to halt disciplinary actions resulting from a senior prank. Following a water balloon fight that caused no serious injuries, the students were suspended for five days, not allowed to attend prom, graduation or other senior activities, and threatened with civil and criminal prosecution. Along with being denied the opportunity to explain themselves prior to the enactment of these punishments, the students never received proof of their involvement. Their due process rights – which are protected by the school’s own handbook and are covered under state and federal laws – were completely bypassed.
In this case, SPLC injected novel legal theories in state contract and tort law into a civil rights issue to argue for a full reversal of the punishments issued to the students. These legal theories, mainly rooted in legal disputes between private entities, were raised in direct response to what the SPLC believes is the source of incidents such as the subject of this case – the privatization of public schools.
Fifteen minutes before graduation, the Civil District Court of Orleans Parish ruled in favor of the students, issuing an injunction prohibiting the school from barring the students from graduation exercises. While the students did not attend the graduation due to the timing of the court’s decision, the decision is a welcome reprieve from the kind of widespread and arbitrary school discipline practices that violate students’ due process rights, particularly for black and disabled students. Studies show that harsh disciplinary consequences have the potential to cut short a child’s education and increase the likelihood of incarceration. These studies connect exclusionary discipline policies and practices to serious educational, economic and social problems, including school avoidance and diminished educational engagement; decreased academic achievement; increased behavior problems; increased likelihood of dropping out; substance abuse; and involvement with juvenile justice systems. In challenging disciplinary practices and processes such as the Sophie B. Wright case, the SPLC continues its mission of stopping the school-to-prison pipeline for the nation’s most vulnerable youth.