Want odds worse than playing against a casino with loaded dice? Try appealing a school disciplinary decision.



Jaw-dropping statistic of the month...

A group of Fairfax County, Va., parents that is crusading for reform to their suburban school district's disciplinary system used the Virginia Open Records Act to find out how well students fare when they appeal the punishment they receive.

Out of 5,025 cases over the past six years that went to a district-level appeal hearing, students were successful in getting disciplinary penalties overturned exactly zero times, according to the parents' compilation. That's right, 0-for-5,025.

Even casinos let people win sometimes. Even slot machines occasionally pay out.

Censored student journalists have experienced the steamroller that is the school-district appeals process first-hand. At Glendale Union High School in Arizona, student editors whose rights plainly were violated went through two rounds of "fair and balanced" appeal hearings -- one of them conducted by the school's own litigation counsel, who is paid to advocate for the school's side in court -- and, unsurprisingly, lost despite having both the law and the facts on their side. (Their case settled favorably in February 2010, with a censored story that raised questions about the school's standardized testing system belatedly running in its entirety.)

Fairfax County is regarded as a model district, one of the nation's most successful. The fact that an elite, sophisticated and well-funded school district cannot maintain an impartial hearing system should ring alarm bells at the U.S. Department of Education and in state legislatures across the country.

That's because lawmakers and DOE policymakers are continuing to pile more and more disciplinary responsibilities on top of an overburdened system that is ill-equipped to handle even the workload it already has.

In recent months, the Education Department has issued guidance instructing school districts to take affirmative steps to prevent online bullying based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Schools that fail to act can face heavy financial penalties from the DOE's civil-rights division.

Meanwhile, legislators continue to propose open-ended anti-bullying laws that, while well-intentioned, run a substantial risk of "false positive" punishment if there is no well-functioning method for a wrongfully accused student to clear her name. Legislatures in Connecticut and Rhode Island have bills pending now that would require schools to punish students who use electronic communications to inflict "emotional harm" -- which could easily include an email that says, "I am breaking up with you."

Since it turns out -- at least in Fairfax County, Va. -- that it's next to impossible to prove your innocence once you've been accused of a disciplinary offense, lawmakers should proceed with extreme caution before expanding the jurisdiction of schools to punish unkind text messages and social-networking posts.

For those who find themselves accused of violating school disciplinary rules because of what they say or write, the SPLC's Krista Gesaman compiled a guide to bringing a due-process challenge if the punishment is imposed under rules that are unconstitutionally vague, or without a reasonable opportunity to present a defense.

Tagged: Due Process-Discipline