In 2008, a group of six students from Virginia High School was suspended for staging a walkout to protest the election of President, Donald Trump. The suspension was initially expected to last for the remainder of the school term, but the school board extended the period by one year after they learned that the students confessed to deliberately disobeying the school’s policy regarding the prohibition of demonstrations in the school compound. The school principal had forewarned the students about holding the protests after he became aware of the students’ intention.
Some of the protest organizers heeded the school principal’s plea and stayed away from the protests but others chose to ignore him. After the protests, the school identified the organizers and suspended them for disobedience and contravention of school policies regarding holding political activities inside the learning institution. The school administration claimed that the students’ actions contravened the school’s policy of non-disturbance in the learning environment.
Parents of the students petitioned the school administration to reconsider its decision after learning about the extension of the suspension period. However, their wish was dismissed because the students had admitted to deliberately disobeying the school administration’s direction not to hold the protest – an action that directly leads to automatic suspension.
The parents were also notified that the students’ admission of guilt meant that they deliberately contravened the school’s policy on discipline and safety, which were highlighted in the school’s handbook provided to them during admission. The parents disagreed with the school’s actions and sued them in a court of law for damages relating to their disciplinary actions.
Defining the Issue and Legal Questions
The aforementioned case highlights the potential legal and ethical issues that emerge when students disrupt the learning environment to protest issues they deem pertinent to their political and social wellbeing. It highlights the balance that schools have to strike when developing policies that are aimed at maintaining decorum and order in the learning environment. At the same time, they are supposed to make sure that these legal provisions do not contravene constitutionally guaranteed rights for all citizens.
The students’ parents sought legal redress from the courts on two grounds. The first one was that due process was not followed when suspending the students because they were not allowed to participate in the disciplinary process that ultimately led to the disciplinary outcome. Secondly, it was argued that the expulsions contravened the students’ right to free speech because they were constitutionally allowed to express their opinions about the electin results freely.
Therefore, the parents argued that the students were simply exercising their right to take part in the protests and the suspensions were unjustified. The opposing argument made by the school board was premised on the admission of guilt by the students, which mandated them to suspend the errand members.
From the perspective of the school’s administration, it could be argued that the school was justified in suspending the students because of their admission of guilt. Indeed, based on the school’s internal disciplinary policies, students were automatically expelled if they willingly admitted to committing an offense after receiving a warning.
Ignoring such directions is seen as an act of insubordination and automatically results in a suspension. Furthermore, the students’ admission of guilt meant that there was no need for the school to organize another meeting to discuss the matter, as there was already a confession. Therefore, the school administration did what it was supposed to do – suspend the students.
The actions of the Virginia High School contravene the parents’ views that due process should have been followed because they wanted to be involved in the disciplinary process. Furthermore, they argued that the school’s actions contravened the students’ right to free speech. In determining the right course action to take in solving this issue, it is critical to answer the following important questions:
- Do attempts by schools to curtail the rights of students to participate in lawful demonstrations infringe on their first amendment rights relating to freedom of speech?
- Should schools follow due process in hearing students’ grievances even when the they admit to wrongdoing?
Broadly, the specific issues highlighted in this case study focus on the need to follow due process when implementing disciplinary actions and emphasize the importance of protecting students’ freedom of speech rights when developing internal disciplinary policies.
Related Case and Federal Laws
Dixon v. Alabama (1961)
In the Dixon v. Alabama case, Alabama State College, which was a racially segregated institution of higher learning, expelled six students, among them John Dixon, for taking part in a civil rights protest. The student sued the school’s board for dismissing them without a hearing (Stroch, 2020). The court ruled that the school acted contrary to the law without giving the students a chance to be heard (Stroch, 2020). This case law is among the first in US history to state the importance of due process when punishing students.
Therefore, it meant that there was a minimal due process that had to be undertaken before such disciplinary actions can be taken. If the merits of this case were applied to the Virginia case study, it could be argued that the school board was wrong in expelling the group of six students who organized the Donald Trump protest because due process was not followed as their parents were excluded from the disciplinary process.
Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)
In the Tinker v. Des Moines case, students were suspended from school for wearing armbands that were designed to protest the Vietnam War. Affected students were warned against wearing such paraphernalia to school because it would disturb the learning environment but the students went ahead to do it anyway (US Courts, 2020).
After, the suspension, the students and their parents challenged the decision of the school board in a court of law, citing infringements on their freedom of speech (US Courts, 2020). The courts ruled that the students’ freedom of speech was still applicable even in the school setting and that administrators had no right to discipline the students merely based on the suspicion that their freedom of speech rights would affect peace in the learning environment.
This decision, if applied to the Virginia case study means that the school board wrongfully expelled the students for organizing the protests because they were exercising their first amendment rights. Therefore, the school’s policies, which limited this freedom, were secondary to the first amendment rights.
Goss v. Lopez (1975)
In the Goss v. Lopez case, the extent that education institutions could go in disciplining students without following due process was challenged in a court of law. The case was prosecuted based on the principles of due process outlined in the 14th Amendment of the American constitution (WSL, 2020). The Justices pointed out that due process is breached by schools, which do not follow laid down procedures associated with disciplining their students (WSL, 2020).
Particularly, the courts noted that schools had to meet a minimum threshold of notice that was to be accorded to the students before expelling them. The goal is to give them an opportunity to be heard before taking disciplinary actions on them. This ruling meant that a public school had to conduct a hearing before taking disciplinary actions on a student.
If applied in the Virginia case study, it means that the school board did not meet the minimum threshold needed to warrant an expulsion because the students were denied an opportunity to be heard in a disciplinary meeting after admitting to their guilt. Therefore, the school’s policies were inconsistent with the judicial opinion expressed above.
Wood v. Strickland (1975)
In the Wood v. Strickland case, two sophomore students, Peggy Strickland and Virginia Crain sued their school, Mena Public High School, for damages arising from their suspension for spiking drinks at an event attended by both teachers and parents. The students claimed that the institution did not follow due process by suspending them because they were not given an opportunity to express their side of the story (Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, 2020a).
Furthermore, they argued that their actions were not malicious as they were meant to prank the participants and not harm them (Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, 2020a). This case drew attention to the rights of schools to violate due process when it was difficult to prove malice. The justices opined that the school board enjoyed immunity from liability resulting from the failure to follow due process because their actions were not malicious.
If the merits of this case were applied in the Virginia case study, it can be argued that the school board rightfully expelled the six students who organized the Donald Trump protest because they admitted to willfully doing so despite being forewarned. This decision means that the actions of the Virginia School Board to expel the minors were justified because the admission to guilt proves malice.
McClain ex rel. McClain v. Lafayette County Board of Education (1982)
In the McClain ex rel. McClain v. Lafayette County Board of Education case, a student, McClain, was suspended from his school because of being in possession of a switchblade knife, which was against the school’s policy on safety. McClain, through his parents, contended that the school’s board infringed on the student’s right to due process by first suspending him without a fair hearing (Casetext Inc., 2020).
They also argued that a fair hearing should have preceded the indefinite suspension imposed on McClain where the plaintiff was presented with a list of his accusers and their witness statements. The courts ruled that, while “due process” is expected of any disciplinary case, it was imperative to understand the individual circumstances surrounding each case. On this principle, the justices argued that the school board’s disciplinary process did not amount to an infringement of the plaintiff’s right to due process because McClain had already admitted to carrying the knife to school.
Therefore, the actions taken by the school were only cumulative of the “admission of guilt” process that had already been initiated when the student confessed to committing the offense. The decision made above would mean that the students who participated in the protests to demonstrate the election of the US president, as demonstrated in the case scenario, were duly suspended because they admitted to wrongdoing.
Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986)
In the Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser case, the latter sued the school district for disciplining him for using obscene language to elevate a colleague to a position of authority during a speech made at a school assembly, which was comprised of about 600 High School Students. The case was prosecuted under First Amendment rights, which protected citizens from people who want to infringe on their freedom of speech.
Based on this legal basis, the extent that school administrators could go in disciplining their students for using vulgar or offensive language was tested. The courts ruled that the first amendment right did not prevent educational institutions from disciplining their students, especially on occasions when the latter’s actions were inconsistent with the fundamental values of the respective education programs or systems affected (Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, 2020b).
The merits of this case suggest that the suspension of students, as explained in the case scenario, was rightfully sanctioned despite the existence of constitutional guarantees on free speech.
Virginia Education Code Policy
The Virginia Education Code does not openly specify actions that school boards should take when disciplining students. Instead, it provides a broad range of guidelines that they may follow to maintain high levels of compliance and accountability in the management of school operations. Most of these guidelines are outlined in provisions stipulating the school board’s powers and duties, as defined by the York County School Division (2020).
On this basis, the education code policy gives school boards the mandate to enforce all school laws by first explaining them to affected parties and observing how they are implemented (York County School Division, 2020). Furthermore, existing laws allow school boards to oversee the actions of education administrators to improve compliance.
The Virginia Education Code is pertinent to this study because it gives school boards the primary responsibility of making sure that disciplinary actions taken in various school settings do not infringe on existing laws and freedoms. Therefore, when parents or students seek legal redress in a court, it should be assumed that they fundamentally disagree with the actions of the school board.
Nonetheless, this legal strategy does not negate the immense power given to school boards in handling disciplinary matters by the Virginia Education Code. These sweeping powers mean that school boards have the primary responsibility of seeing that school policies are consistent with relevant state laws and regulations.
Virginia High School Policy (Laws § 22.1-277)
The Virginia High School policies highlighted here concern the limitations, conditions, and exclusion of actions relating to a student’s suspension or expulsion from school. Particularly, according to Virginia high school policy Laws § 22.1-277, the school’s board is only allowed to suspend or expel a student if there are sufficient grounds for doing so (Child Trends & EMT Associates, Inc., 2019).
Subsection C or § 22.1-277.07 or 22.1-277.08 of the school policy is of particular interest to this study because it stipulates that the school board should not expel students for more than three days unless they pose significant physical harm to others students or the school board confirms the existence of aggravating circumstances (Child Trends & EMT Associates, Inc., 2019). These insights need to be factored when deciding the right course of action to take in addressing the plight of the expelled students.
Recommendation for Action
It is the opinion of the administrative team that the case involving the six high school students accused of organizing the Donald Trump protests should be reexamined based on three grounds. The first one is that the school board’s action does not sufficiently meet the criterion set out in the institution’s disciplinary policies regarding the threshold for expulsion.
For example, the school’s policies stipulate that students should not be suspended for more than three days if their actions do not cause physical harm to other students. Based on this legal provision, it could not be independently established that the protest would lead to bodily harm.
Secondly, it is the administration’s position that the parents should have been involved in the decision-making process that ultimately led to the students’ expulsion from school. Multiple cases discussed above have shown the importance of following due process when implementing adverse disciplinary actions. This case study is subject to the same principle and the Virginia High School board should be cognizant of the need to involve parents in making disciplinary decisions.
Lastly, it is the administration’s position that the school board infringed on the student’s first amendment right because they had a right to express their views on Donald Trump’s election. Based on the merits of the Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser case, it can be deduced that the students’ first amendment rights were not alienable once they entered the school compound. Therefore, the right to express their opinions supersedes all other school policy actions emanating from the institution’s disciplinary processes.
From this research project, we have learned the importance of being conversant about the legal issues governing disciplinary actions in schools. Failing to understand these factors could lead to the ineffective implementation of school laws or the prolonging of disciplinary cases beyond the time that should be taken to complete them.
Through this research project, we have also realized that the need to follow due process or pursue actions that promote it is a “grey area” in law because different courts have either taken straightforward approaches in deciding such cases or unclear positions regarding the same issue. For example, in the Wood v. Strickland case, due process was equated to malice, and the latter is difficult to prove.
Broadly, the disciplinary issues discussed in this paper draw attention to two key issues in the implementation of disciplinary processes – the need to follow due process and the application of unalienable rights in the learning environment. Particularly, the application of first amendment rights emerged as a key concern in the implementation of disciplinary cases in this research project.
Overall, there is a need to balance our understanding of school policies regarding disciplinary practices and existing constitutional provisions regarding free speech and due process to provide a fair basis for implementing disciplinary actions. Indeed, it is no longer tenable for school administrators to act as passive participants in implementing disciplinary practices because they need to expand their knowledge regarding the statutory provisions of the law that impact the process.
Casetext Inc. (2020). McClain ex rel. McClain v. Lafayette County Board of Education. Web.
Child Trends & EMT Associates, Inc. (2019). Virginia compilation of school discipline laws and regulations. Web.
Cornell’s Legal Information Institute. (2020a). Wood v. Strickland. Web.
Cornell’s Legal Information Institute. (2020b). Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser. Web.
Stroch, J. (2020). Sixty years later: lessons and echoes of Dixon on campus today. Web.
US Courts. (2020). Facts and case summary – Tinker v. Des Moines. Web.
WSL. (2020). Goss v. Lopez. Web.
York County School Division. (2020). School board powers and duties. Web.