Published Online: January 15, 1997


Court Refuses Case Seeking Appeal of Student Expulsion

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The U.S. Supreme Court refused last week to take a case that argued that a student who brought a gun to school had the right to appeal the principal's decision to expel him.

The high court on Jan. 6 rejected without comment an appeal by the parents of Veltran Trujillo Jr., who was expelled from his Taos, N.M., junior high school in 1993 after school officials found a .22-caliber pistol in his gym locker.

The 7th grader was expelled after a hearing with the principal of Taos Junior High School. He also completed six months of probation after being found delinquent by juvenile authorities.

The boy's parents were unable to get the district superintendent to review the principal's expulsion, leading to a federal lawsuit alleging that the punishment was unduly harsh. The Trujillos said their son was an honor student and had never been in trouble before, and they argued that the lack of an appeal procedure violated their son's constitutional right to due process of law.

Both a federal district court and appeals court rejected those arguments.

A federal district judge ruled that the principal had ample authority to expel Mr. Trujillo, and that his parents had adequate notice of the possible expulsion before the hearing. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit unanimously upheld the ruling.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the Trujillos asked the justices to spell out the due process protections for students in cases of long-term suspensions and expulsions. In a 1975 case, Goss v. Lopez, the high court said students facing suspensions of up to 10 days deserve at least minimal notice and a chance to be heard. Longer suspensions and disciplines may require more formal procedures, the court said. But the high court has yet to spell out what those procedures should be.

The Trujillos' appeal claimed that in most cases across the country where students have been removed from school for more than 10 days, "the student was allowed to appeal to a higher authority the decision suspending or expelling him."

The case was Trujillo v. Taos Municipal Schools (Case No. 96-695).

Agency-Fee Case

In separate action last week, the high court avoided a dispute between the National Education Association and several nonunion educators in Michigan over so-called agency fees.

The justices rejected an appeal from the NEA and its state and local affiliates in Michigan. A federal appeals court ruled in favor of nonunion teachers who questioned whether some of their mandatory service fees were paying for activities other than collective bargaining.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled last year that nonunion educators have a right to examine union financial documents in lawsuits challenging the propriety of agency fees.

The unions argued in their appeal in Michigan Education Association-NEA v. Bromley (No. 96-429) that the 7th Circuit ruling upsets a system based on previous high court rulings under which an arbitrator decides disputes over service-fee amounts involving people who are not union members.

The Supreme Court's refusal to intervene means the nonunion teachers' case goes back to a federal district court in Michigan.

Other Action

Meanwhile, the high court took action in the following education-related cases in December:

  • In Roslyn Union Free School District v. Hsu (No. 96-583), the justices let stand a federal appeals court ruling that a Christian students' club could require its officers to be Christian despite a high school's non-discrimination rules for clubs.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that the Walking on Water Club at Roslyn (N.Y.) High School had the right under the federal Equal Access Act to require its officers to be Christian.

The requirement "is essential to the expressive content of the meetings and to the group's preservation of its purpose and identity," the court said.

The Roslyn school district, in its appeal to the Supreme Court, argued it was important to enforce "uniform standards of conduct" for all students and clubs.

The high court rejected the appeal without comment on Dec. 16.

  • On that same day, the court ruled that Mississippi cannot bar poor people from appealing the termination of their parental rights just because they cannot afford court costs.

The court ruled 6-3 in M.L.B. v. S.L.J. (No. 95-853) that a parent-child relationship involves protections of personal liberty under the 14th Amendment. The court overturned a ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court that barred a mother who could not afford $2,000 in court costs from appealing a lower court decision that ended her parental rights and allowed her children to be adopted by the new wife of the children's father.

"We place decrees forever terminating parental rights in the category of cases in which the state may not bolt the door to equal justice," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the majority opinion.

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