Matthew Lynch: Due Process in Suspension and Expulsion

Matthew Lynch writes that it’s important to remember that students are citizens first and should be extended due process rights before disciplinary decisions.

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Matthew Lynch

The right to education for every student is a major consideration of the U.S. Supreme Court when dealing with issues concerning due process, suspensions and expulsions. This was clearly illustrated by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Goss v. Lopez case of 1975, where the judge ruled that the due process requirement regarding cases dealing with suspensions of ten days or less must include a proper and timely written or oral communication to the student that outlines the charges against him or her.

Furthermore, he or she must be provided with the opportunity to present his or her side of the story during any proceedings related to the suspension. The inherent guiding principle is that all students have the right to an education, which is secured for them under state laws. “Legitimate claims of entitlement to public education” exists for all, and no individual or organization can take that “right to an education” from him or her arbitrarily under any circumstance.

This point is discussed further in an article entitled “Student due process rights in academic dismissals from the public schools” by R. Lawrence Dessem, in The Journal of Law and Education, 1976. Dessem’s argument is that while the Goss decision dealt primarily with dismissal from school for disciplinary reasons, the scope should be broadened in the future to outline due process requirements in cases involving the suspension of students for academic reasons as well. The article deals with the basic procedural requirements that ensure due process needs of students are met, and a chance for fair and impartial justice is given to each student. He feels the following are absolute essentials:

– There must be an attempt to reach to a consensus over the real basis of fact.
– The provision for future review of any decision must be present.
– The justness of all procedures appropriated in reaching any decisions.
– Regarding the case must be established in entirety.

In real-life terms, however, the essentials listed above translate into the following:

– Provision of a timely notice to the student revealing all charges against him.
– Providing ample opportunity for the concerned student to be able to speak.
– Clarification of the charges against him or her during the hearing.

Dessem also delves into issues such as the appointment of groups, inside or outside school, to conduct hearings. He is in favor of appointing in-house juries, as he feels that this ensures there is adequate interest from the persons appointed to make the decisions. Department expenses can also be kept to a bare minimum by using this model.

The contemporary arrangement for hearing cases clearly demonstrates just how strictly policy-driven schools are these days. It is common to find a policy or set of guidelines for every activity and function that takes place on school grounds. These policies and guidelines cover everything from what the kids are taught, to how to manage a sick student, to how to conduct parent-teacher meetings. If a school discovers that any aspect of school life is not covered by a policy, it is likely that the school authorities will develop one.

The need for policies and guidelines is increasing as the expectations of schools rise. While teachers are still expected to be caring, calm and accommodating to individuals, the scope of liberties and facilities provided to the students is fast expanding. It is clear that students have a much wider knowledge of their rights these days. This is especially true when it comes to disciplinary situations. It is quite clear that striking a balance between showing compassion and permission and the constraints of the law is tough to achieve at times.

Take for example the situation where a student becomes rowdy and disruptive to the extent that his or her removal from the school becomes necessary. While the school ideally has a policy outlining options in such circumstances—which may range from short-term or long-term suspension to permanent expulsion of the student—it is the institution’s moral obligation to choose the action that most aptly fits that particular student.

For minor disciplinary actions, schools can use their discretion depending upon the gravity of the act. Short-term suspensions, for example, ought to be preceded by some sort of a notice to the student and a chance to tell his or her side of the story. This notice must bear tangible proof of being served in case the student denies the charge. This places the school in a strong position to explain the evidence in the best possible manner.

Long-term suspension or expulsion must be backed with concrete reasons and proof of the student’s offending behavior. It is the school’s responsibility to ensure that the punitive actions imposed do not violate the student’s rights. In order to guarantee that students’ rights have been protected, educators at a minimum should:

– Provide students with a written notice of the alleged charges against them.
– Provide a full and detailed notification of the time and place of the hearing well in advance.
– Share with the student a clear-cut description of the procedures to be followed at the hearing.
– Furnish a list of evidence to be presented as well as the names of witnesses who will be called for the hearing.
– Make sure the student has an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, and can bring witnesses of their own.
– Keep the option of appealing the final decision open for the student against whom the charges are being put.

    Again, laws are not stationary and fixed, and amendments are made when needed to adapt to changing social norms, viewpoints and thought processes. A good example is the way schools have changed in dealing with teen pregnancy; while teen pregnancy is still discouraged school authorities cannot restrict these students’ rights to an education. It is very important then that students, being citizens first, are provided with their substantive and procedural due process rights.

    Dr. Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch is the author of three forthcoming books; Its Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching (Pearson 2013). To read more of his work, please visit his blog at www.matthewsruminations.blogspot.com. He can be contacted at mlynch@mail.widener.edu.

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    August 12th, 2011

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