More than 60 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Brown v. Board of Education, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” Since 1954, education has become even more critical to success, yet, a trend in Florida had threatened this advancement, particularly for students of color. The ACLU helped a courageous student reverse this trend and ensure students across Florida receive a fair hearing before they are denied a proper education.
Studies have shown us that removing students from their schools as discipline does not reduce the problematic behavior at issue and increases the likelihood of future problems in school – and of arrests. This knowledge is spurring reforms throughout the country. Facing such reforms, some Florida school districts have increasingly relied on a practice that abuses students due process rights.
Because Florida’s students have a right to a high-quality education, denying that right requires due process protections. State law mandates that students facing expulsion may examine witnesses against them, call their own witnesses, and hear all the evidence against them. Yet, each year, Florida school officials remove 7,000 students from their regular, traditional school for one to three semesters based only on witnesses’ statements and the students’ accounts. Students of color are expelled without due process at a rate 50% higher than white students. Districts call it “Disciplinary Reassignment” or “Alternative Placement,” but it is simply an expulsion without due process. As discipline, these students join other expelled student at an alternative or virtual school, where they receive inferior education. The same consequence, without due process.
S.J. was one such student.
In the fall of 2015, he was accused of recording some shenanigans with his cell phone. On the principal’s request, the superintendent recommended the school board remove him from his regular school, and all traditional schools in the county, through disciplinary reassignment. Seeing that he was facing the same consequence as an expulsion, S.J. demanded the same process to ensure the school got the facts right before imposing it. No one had before asked Escambia County for this fairness.
An example of the troubling trends the ACLU of Florida has identified, over the last decade, Escambia County has significantly reduced the number of expulsions and instead now disciplinarily reassigns students. While this may project the image of a more progressive approach to school discipline, it inflicts the same damage of expulsions without properly preserving the students’ rights.
Ultimately, the Escambia County School Board agreed to conduct a hearing consistent with the expulsion procedure in S.J.’s case. However, it refused to follow standard procedures requiring a final order which would allow S.J. to appeal its decision. The school board claimed that S.J. had no right to such a final order—that it had only provided the hearing as a courtesy. Without the final order, S.J. could not challenge his expulsion and remained excluded from all regular schools in his county.
S.J. sued the school board to demand the final order to which he was entitled. He wanted to ensure that all students in Florida—not just those who sought help from the ACLU—would be entitled to a fair hearing before they are removed from a traditional school and deprived of a quality education. Regardless of semantics, whenever a student is removed from school, she should have due process.
In December 2017, the Florida First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee elevated substance over form. No matter the procedure’s name, when school officials shut a student out from attending a traditional school and relegate him to an alternative location, she has the same protections against error as students facing expulsion. As part of Brown’s legacy, this is a victory for education, due process, and students of color in Florida.
by Benjamin Stevenson
Benjamin Stevenson is a Staff Attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
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