The Harvard CR-CL Amicus blog posts solicited content in an effort to feature debate and various perspectives. Elizabeth McIntyre, the contributor for this post, is an attorney in Greater Boston Legal Services’ School to Prison Pipeline Intervention Project. She represents low-income children of color in school discipline and related special education disputes and collaborates with youth organizers and caregivers to improve school discipline policy across the state. Ms. McIntyre graduated magna cum laude from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and Boston University School of Law. She is the recipient of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Top Women of Law Leadership Award, the Reginald Heber Smith Award, and Supreme Judicial Court’s Adams Pro Bono Publico Award.
Deandre* would be the first to tell you he’s not a very good wrestler. His freshman year of high school, he was on his school’s wrestling team, but about two weeks into his first season, Deandre decided: a) he didn’t like wrestling as much as he thought he would, and b) he hated the wrestling uniforms.
Though Deandre quit the team after that first year, he was still a big fan of wrestling. One day during the fall of his sophomore year, Deandre was in math class chatting with a friend about a match that had happened the night before. As they cheerfully argued about who had performed better, Deandre made the signature move of his favorite wrestler. This move included Deandre putting his fist on his throat and then pushing upwards, under his chin.
Deandre’s teacher Mr. Lorde spotted this move, and told Deandre to step out of his classroom. Next, Mr. Lorde told him to go see Mr. Lyman, the dean of students. Mr. Lyman spoke with Mr. Lorde, and then told Deandre Mr. Lorde was accusing Deandre of threatening him. Deandre, confident this misunderstanding could be easily rectified, explained about the wrestling move. He suggested that perhaps Mr. Lorde had misinterpreted the gesture. Mr. Lyman told Deandre that he would talk to Mr. Lorde again and that Deandre would need to stay in Mr. Lyman’s office for the rest of the day.
The next morning, Mr. Lyman called Deandre’s mother around 7:00 a.m., before Deandre would have left for school. Mr. Lyman told Deandre’s mother that Deandre was suspended for 14 days for threatening a teacher. Deandre’s mother asked if they could come to the school and meet to talk about this, and Mr. Lyman said no, his decision was final.
When Deandre and his mother called me, I immediately appealed the suspension. There were significant due process problems with Deandre’s suspension; specifically, the school had provided him with absolutely no due process.
Nearly five years ago, Massachusetts passed an extraordinary school discipline law. Yet, schools still routinely fail to abide by the protections created in that law. If a school is considering suspending a student (for all but the most serious offenses), the school must: a) schedule a suspension hearing, b) give the parent written and verbal notice of the hearing and accommodate the parent’s reasonable requests for timing change, and c) hold a suspension hearing wherein the student and parent have a meaningful opportunity to present evidence and ask questions. Moreover, a school may not automatically suspend a student for allegedly committing a particular offense, and for a suspension that is longer than 10 days, the school must try something else—detention, apology, etc.—first.
Massachusetts did not pass this law to irritate school administrators. Rather, this law was created to intervene in what has been called the “school to prison pipeline.” Here’s what we know: students who are suspended are more likely to drop out than their peers. Students who drop out are more likely to be incarcerated than their peers. Students arrested before they turn 18 years old are significantly more likely to be re-arrested as adults. That is the school to prison pipeline: pushing kids out of their school communities with suspensions, preventing them from achieving academically, and repeatedly incarcerating them as adults.
Distressingly, it is black and Latino students—particularly black and Latino students with disabilities—who are disproportionately likely to be funneled into this this pipeline. During the 2015–2016 school year black students were suspended at a rate four times that of their white peers; Latino students were suspended at a rate 3.5 times that of their white peers. Deandre, like all but one of the students I have represented since September 2014, is student of color. He is black.
Unfortunately, Deandre’s case is not unique. I have had dozens upon dozens upon dozens of black and Latino students who were suspended without an opportunity to explain their side of the story and whose parents were left confused and frustrated. Creating a new law that protects disenfranchised people—in this case, students of color—certainly does not mean that schools will automatically do what they are supposed to do. It takes a community, and attorneys to help the community, to enforce their rights.
I won Deandre’s appeal. Deandre’s school had failed to hold a hearing, failed to provide notice of a hearing, and failed to try an alternative form of discipline. I was glad to win the appeal for my client, and he was of course delighted. But, after we received the favorable decision, Deandre asked me whether his case was unique. I assured him it was not. I told Deandre that I was constantly working on policy advocacy to try to ameliorate this problem of unlawful suspensions, in addition to taking individual cases like his. I explained that I often did Know Your Rights trainings with students, so they would at least know what they had a right to expect of their schools.
Deandre shook his head. “Schools,” he muttered, “should really just follow the law.”
*All names and identifying details in this post have been changed to protect my clients’ identity.