Appeals Court Clarifies Students' Due-Process Rights
School disciplinary boards can consider evidence of prior misconduct when they determine the appropriate punishment for serious student offenses, a federal appeals court ruled late last month.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that officials of the Austin (Tex.) Independent School District had provided adequate due process to a student who admitted to possessing marijuana at school.
According to legal observers, the case, Brewer v. Austin Independent School District, clarifies the due-process rights of students charged with major infractions of school policy. A number of federal and state courts have rendered conflicting rulings on the issue, which has not yet been addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 1975 case, Goss v. Lopez, the Supreme Court set out the minimum constitutional requirements for due process in cases involving suspensions of 10 or fewer days but stated that "longer suspensions or expulsions ... may require more formal procedures."
The Austin case began in November 1982, when Dennis Brewer ad-mitted having marijuana during questioning by the principal of the David Crockett High School. He was subsequently suspended for the remainder of the school year on the recommendation of a campus review board.
Although he was allowed to return to school after missing eight weeks of classes, Mr. Brewer sued the school district, claiming that the year-long suspension was based on unsubstantiated evidence that he had been selling drugs.
A federal district court issued a summary judgment in favor of the school district, saying that "the court rejects any suggestion that the technicalities of criminal procedure ought to be transported into school suspension cases."
District officials were surprised that the appeals court agreed to hear the case, according to James R. Raup, their lawyer.
At issue in the appeal was whether the review board should have considered written statements from three students who claimed that Mr. Brewer had been using and selling drugs on school grounds within the preceding three months.
Mr. Brewer argued that because he was not provided with the names of the witnesses or written copies of their charges, their testimony should not have been admitted during the sentencing hearing.
The witnesses' names were withheld to prevent any retribution against them, which is the usual procedure when witnesses at disciplinary hearings are students, according to Mr. Raup.
The appeals court ruled that school policy allowed for a one-year suspension for the possession charge alone and that the review board act-ed correctly in allowing the statements to be used in determining the length of Mr. Brewer's suspension.
"We decline to escalate the formality of the suspension process even further by requiring school administrators to provide a fact hearing as to the accuracy of each bit of evidence considered in determining the appropriate length of punishment," the court said in a written opinion.
On another point important to educators, the appeals court ruled that "a school administrator involved in the initiation and investi-gation of charges is not thereby disqualified from conducting a hearing on the charges," unless the administrator's presence on the hearing board can be shown to bias its impartiality.
New Discipline Policy
Students in Texas are now much less likely to receive long suspensions or expulsions than when the case began. Laws and regulations adopted by the state in the past two years require students to be declared "incorrigible" before they can be removed from their current educational program.
The state's new goal, said Mr. Raup, is to keep problem students "in school or in custody."