Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ensuring Harsh Discipline and Complicating the Problem

Getting to the bottom of what would otherwise be a simple suspension appears to be a complex task in J.A. ex rel. Swain v. Talladega City Bd. of Educ., 2014 WL 4185137 (N.D. Ala. Aug. 15, 2014) because of the statutory and constitutional context in which it arises.  The court does not chronologically or clearly articulate the facts, but it appears that J.A. and his Assistant Principal were involved in some type of physical altercation.  As a result, J.A. was referred to the police and charged with assault in juvenile court.  Pursuant to Alabama statute, a school shall not readmit a student charged with drugs, weapons, physical harm, or threats until the juvenile charges are disposed of.  As a result, J.A. was suspended from school and assigned to an alternate school.

J.A. filed suit against the principal and district, alleging the principal assualted him and that he was deprived of his substantive due process rights.  He also filed for a preliminary injunction, requesting that he be readmitted.  Beyond that, things get complicated.  J.A.'s juvenile proceedings are apparently dragging out and, thus, he remains excluded from school based on the statute.  He points out the illogic of this statute, as it would permit a student quickly found guilty or delinquent to return to school in short order, but would indefinitely exclude the innocent student who holds out for or requires more complex deliberations.  In other words, the readmission is not triggered by substantive facts, guilt, or innocence, but simply the length of time it takes for juvenile proceedings to run.  

The court seems to acknowledge a potential problem, but indicates J.A. has not pleaded a legal right or claim that would address this problem.  Rather than intervene, the court accepts the argument that "before Student is able to legally challenge the [Board of Education's] (BOE) treatment of him, he must first exhaust the criminal proceedings still pending in Juvenile Court and, second, he must exhaust the civil proceedings available to him, including an appeal to state circuit court, if the BOE does not return him to the high school as an ordinary pupil subsequent to the conclusion of the criminal proceedings."

I do not have the benefit of the complaint, but based on my work in The Constitutional Limit of Zero Tolerance in Schools, J.A.'s substantive due process claim could cover this unequal and harsh punishment or, at least, require further legal analysis of the statute.  The court, however, does not go any further than to make summary conclusions.

I also find curious the purported deficiencies in J.A.'s complaint:

(i) Student does not have a state constitutional right to a public education (Doc. 32 at 5–6); (ii) Student's substantive due process rights under the fourteenth amendment are not triggered by his suspension (Doc. 32 at 6–11); (iii) the Student's procedural due process rights under the fourteenth amendment have not be violated because he was able to present his side of what transpired at the disciplinary hearing held on March 18, 2014, and no additional due process was owed to him (id. at 11–16); (iv) Student has not asserted an equal protection claim (id. at 17); and (v) Student's alleged offense (i.e., battery upon a school board employee) and the resulting punishment of a school suspension prior to any criminal adjudication do not satisfy the narrow “shocking disparity” exception that would permit this court to constitutionally intervene and modify the BOE's disciplinary decision (id. at 17–18).

The first three are highly questionable.  First, Alabama's constitution does contain an education clause and rights.  That the state supreme court has found school financing to be nonjusticiable under the constitution does not mean students lack a constitutional right to education.  Second, substantive due process is per se triggered by suspension.  The school's actions may comply with substantive due process, but it cannot say substantive due process is not triggered.  Third, procedural due process requires a meaningful hearing.  Being allowed to present one's side of the story is a necessary condition of complying with procedural due process, but not per se sufficient.

To the court and Board's defense, the main thrust of J.A.'s claim appears to be a self defense claim and the notion that the assistant principal was the first aggressor.  Pushing this issue to the forefront somewhat distracts from constitutional rights.  On the other hand, his self-defense claim is equivalent to an innocence claim that he believes supercedes his other claims.  

Regardless, from a broader perspective, this case is indicative of a highly complex framework for dealing with student discipline that seeks to insulate school's from evaluating student conduct and ensure their harsh punishment, regardless of the merits of the punishment.  That basic point alone ought give courts serious reservations about its constitutionality under substantive due process.

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