Children's Education Law Clinic saves 1,000 school days!

November 30, 2006Duke Law News

A dozen public school students were in school for 1,000 days when they otherwise would have been excluded as a result of the work of the Children's Education Law Clinic. That's the number of days of proposed suspension from school that were saved when the law students at the Clinic took up their cases and represented them in school suspension hearings this year. "Even if students have broken a school rule, long suspensions are usually counterproductive," commented Jane Wettach, Director of the Children's Education Law Clinic. "Lots of research shows that students who are suspended from school for long periods of time are more likely to lose their connection with the learning process and drop out, and there's no research that links long suspensions with improved behavior," she said. "Our goal at the Clinic is to help as many students as we can get back to class so they can reconnect with their education." When facing a long-term suspension, which is defined as anything longer than 10 school days, a student has the right to a hearing. Students can be represented by an attorney – or in the case of clients of CELC, a law student certified to practice under state bar rules – to assist in the presentation of the case. Following the hearing, the proposed suspension is reviewed by the Superintendent of the school district and can be appealed to the Board of Education. In most of the Clinic's cases, the student did not deny having violated school policy, but found the length of the suspension to be excessive. Thus, in most cases, the task for the law student representative was to present both the facts of the incident, and the student, in the best light possible. In nearly every case the Clinic took on, the law student was successful in that effort. One ninth grade student, Iran, was represented by 3L Katie Hartman during the fall semester. Her client had gotten into a fist fight with another student on the sidewalk outside of the school during the second week of class. His brother intervened to try to break up the fight. No one was hurt and it lasted only a few minutes, but the principal decided the student should be excluded for the rest of the school year because the fight was characterized as a "multiple on one" incident. After the hearing, the Superintendent approved the year-long suspension. Katie brought the case before the Board of Education, arguing that excluding a student for an entire year of school for participation in a single fist fight, in which no injuries occurred, no classes were disrupted, and no unwilling participants were involved, was grossly disproportionate to the offense. The Board agreed, reducing the suspension to the "time served." Iran was permitted back in school for the remaining 100 days of the school year. Another case involved A.P., a 12-year-old boy who faced expulsion from school for 365 days, charged with having a firearm at school. The facts, as discovered by 2L Heather Dambly, were that A.P. found a gun in some bushes near his house. Some older boys talked him into showing them the gun, and the boys got together on a Saturday night in the neighborhood. Looking for an open place to experiment with shooting it into the air where no one would get hurt, the boys ended up on an elementary school playground. A.P. helped hold the gun straight up while another boy pulled the trigger. While acknowledging the seriousness of playing with a weapon, Heather argued that the 365-day suspension was designed to remove a student from school who presented a real danger to other students by having a weapon on campus when school was in session. It was an excessive response in this case, especially given that A.P. was considered by his teachers to be non-violent, responsible, and compliant, with no disciplinary history. When the Superintendent reviewed the case, he agreed with Heather's request to reduce the suspension to the remainder of the school year. A.P. can return in August, and will be in school for 100 days that he would otherwise have missed. After winning a similar case for her 7th grade client, 2L Amy Roy commented, "I was just so thrilled that I had a big part in making this happen. Had it not be for our Clinic, Andre would likely have remained out of school for the rest of the school year. And while it may not seem like the biggest deal in the world, I'm pretty sure it was to my client that day."