Education

Settlement Reached in Colorado Case Over Students’ Constitutional Rights

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 15, 2020 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Ever since I wrote a story last year on a federal lawsuit on whether a Colorado charter school violated students’ constitutional rights, people have emailed me to ask: What happened to the students? Did a court ever rule on the situation?

It’s certainly not often that reporters get to return to stories they covered and this is a nice exception. Last October, the students, parents, and administrators of Victory Preparatory Academy reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount of money.

Here’s a short background for those of you new to the unusual. In 2017, students at VPA, a highly ranked charter school in Commerce City, Colo., had held a brief silent protest to draw attention to what they felt was an overly strict, punitive culture at the school. The school’s administraton reacted severely: It made the entire student body go home for the remainder of the day, and then compelled some students’ parents to withdraw them from the charter school. The parents and students said this was a violation of the students’ First Amendment rights, as well as their due-process rights under the U.S. Constitution.

I used this micro-example as a starting point to explore the much broader idea of whether schools have a duty to model good civic practices, as well as to teach them. It’s part of our ongoing investigation into the way U.S. schools teach civics, and how they might improve it.

To be clear, I highlighted this example because it seemed so extreme. VPA administrators’ conduct is probably not representative of charter schools or U.S. schools as a whole. But some of the themes—a lack of student voice, a strict dress code and code of conduct, and so on—do echo in national debates over schooling, especially over how discipline policies tend to impact students of color more than their peers.

These are, of course, extremely complicated issues. Schools are not democracies, after all—there have to be rules to ensure order and an opportunity to learn. And students’ constitutional rights do look different in schools. But at what point does the line get crossed?

In a crucial moment last August, federal district court judge Raymond P. Moore ruled against a motion from the school to dismiss the case. In his ruling, he found most of the students’ and parents’ claims plausible, including the notion that the school deprived students of their due process.

“Defendents cite no authority for the proposition that school officials may summarily suspend an entire student body of approximately 120 students in the manner alleged here. It is inconceivable that these students had an opportunity to present their side of the story in the brief period between when they were called back to the gym and when Defendant Jajdelslki [VPA’s principal] announced their collective suspension,” he noted.

On only one claim did he side with the defendants, saying that the 66-page student handbook was not facially unconstitutional. (This is generally a high bar to meet because one must show there are no circumstances whatsoever that the policy being challenged could be valid.)

Reaching a Settlement

It’s not entirely clear what prompted the two parties to reach a settlement. But the fact that the judge did not throw the lawsuit out probably had something to do with it. Litigation is lengthy and costly, and this one had the added specter of potentially being certified as a class action on behalf of all the students attending VPA. (Principal Ron Jajdelski did not immediately return a request for comment.)

Because this case is now settled, we don’t know how the court might have ruled if, via discovery, it had been able to see all the evidence. But, said Iris Halpern, one of the attorneys representing the students, the order clearly embraced the importance of preserving students’ rights.

“I think what made us happy is that all of these rights were very clearly encapsulated. He wrote a very clear decision. He was not narrowly looking at these issues so they don’t apply elsewhere,” Halpern said. “It reinforced students’ and parents’ rights to be critical of schools, which are huge institutions—and extremely important institutions in these communities and in parents’ and students’ lives.”

That’s especially important given that the school serves a mostly Latino population.

VPA’s troubles may not be over. Apparently as a result of the attention brought by the lawsuit (especially, at an evidentiary hearing), the school’s authorizer, the Colorado Charter School Institute, last summer sent a letter notifying it of a breach in its charter contract. Its concern? The school’s policy of counting expulsions as “voluntary withdrawals,” which the authorizer say ran counter to Colorado rules. Elsewhere, the CCSI also said that the student handbook needed to be revised for calling for suspensions and explusions for a variety of grounds “not authorized in state law.”

The handbook “appears to authorize suspension for such matters as failing to turn in homework, truancy/tardiness, and having food/beverages outside of the cafeteria,” it noted.

It is not yet clear how VPA responded, but in any case, a failure to correct these issues could lead to additional sanctions or ultimately a revocation of the school’s charter.

Image: Emilio Flores and his parents were among the individuals that sued a Colorado charter school for violating free-speech and due process rights. The case recently settled.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP