Wednesday, January 19, 2022

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Because school attendance is mandated for students between the ages of 6 and 16 for those parents who choose to send their children to public schools, those students enrolled in the school system are afforded the normal procedural and substantive due process rights that are guaranteed to all citizens and residents of the states by their separate state constitutions, and by the federal constitution. These rights encompass the student's right to be notified of any alleged violation of school policies or regulations, or related state or federal laws; to be represented by legal counsel at the hearing on the matters in issue; to be presented with evidence in support of the allegations that are raised in the proceedings; to present evidence on his own behalf and in defense of the allegations; to be heard by an impartial tribunal (hearing officer, school board or agency officer; and to appeal the school board or administrative agency decision to a court of competent jurisdiction thereafter.

The seminal case in this area of due process rights for students, in expulsion hearings, was decided by the United States Supreme Court in Wood v. Strickland. The facts in Strickland were straightforward: Peggy Strickland and her friend, Virginia Crain, were charged with and eventually admitted to spiking a bowl of punch with malt liquor that was served at a school function. They were formally expelled from school for violation of their school's student conduct code that prohibited the use or possession of intoxicating beverages at school or during school activities. The students then filed suit against the members of the school board who voted to expel the students from school, the school district, and two administrators, personally, for violation of the students' federal constitutional (due process) rights. The students also requested, inter alia, compensatory and punitive damages, and that an injunction be issued against the school district to prevent further punishment against them.

The federal district court directed a verdict in favor of the school board and other defendants on the grounds of immunity. The appellate court, however, reversed that ruling, and remanded the case for injunctive relief, and a new trial on the damages issues. The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court decision, and found that the state's immunity protections (generally offered to state agency personnel) likewise applied to school board and related officials if those officials act in good faith, and in concert with a student's constitutional due process rights.

For our purposes, the Supreme Court recognized that school board members function both as legislators and adjudicators in expulsion circumstances, as each function involves the exercise of discretion, the review of factual matters, and the "formulation of long-term policy." Simply stated, the school board members and administrators are asked to judge whether there have been violations of school regulations, and, if so, what the appropriate sanctions for the violations must be. In the specific context of school discipline, therefore, the Court determined that a school board member is not immune from 42 U.S.C.A. ยง 1983 damages if the member knew or reasonably should have known that the action he took (inferentially, expulsion of a student from school) would violate the student's constitutional rights, or if the board member took the action with a malicious intention to cause a deprivation of the student's constitutional rights, or to otherwise injure the student.

 


Sam A. Mackie received his B.S. in Education from Ohio State University, an M.S. in Education from Florida International University, and his J.D. from Florida State University


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