Tuesday, October 15, 2013
A North Andover, Massachusetts high school senior was suspended from school's volleyball team and stripped of her position as captain for violating the school's zero tolerance drug and alcohol policy. Erin Cox went to a party to pick up a friend who needed a ride because she was too drunk to drive herself. The police were already there when Cox arrived, but the police cleared her to leave. Nonetheless, the school suspended her from the team. As one might imagine, this story has been lighting up social media and the subject of national news, but my question is where are the courts?
Cox filed a lawsuit to enjoin the school from suspending her, but, according to local media reports, the court ruled on Friday that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. I have not been able to lay my hands on the complaint or the court order. It is possible the student filed in the wrong court or some other procedural anomaly is depriving the court of jurisdiction. If so, that sounds like an error on the part of her attorney. It not, this may be just another case in a long line where courts abdicate their responsibility to assess the constitutionality of school discipline. While the Court in Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308 (1975), stressed that it is not the role of courts "to set aside decisions of school administrators which the court may view as lacking a basis in wisdom or compassion," the Court in Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975), held that due process applies to students' property interest in education (although there is some question as to whether denying students athletic opportunites implicates the property right to education). Moreover, in the state of Massachusetts, where Cox was suspended, the state supreme court held in McDuffy v. Secretary (1993) that students have a constitutional right to education under state law. If schools can suspend students on grounds as irrational as those alleged in Cox's case, then the rights articulated in Goss and McDuffy become meaningless. Substantive due process does place limits, albeit narrow ones, on school discipline and courts must apply those limits in good faith. Of course, none of this means a court can or should ignore jurisdictional problems, but in reading hundreds of discipline cases, courts' rationale for disposing of cases is often muddled at best.
Note: This post was updated to reflect that the suspension was from athletics only, not school, which I learned when I later was able to get the complaint.