The ACLU of Rhode Island announced today that the Barrington School District has dropped the lawsuit it filed in October against one of its own students who had successfully challenged before the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) his three-day out-of-school suspension. Barrington’s lawsuit, which the ACLU had called “outrageous and shameful” when it was filed, had sought to overturn the RIDE decision and also demanded a recovery of attorneys’ fees from both the middle school student and RIDE. The ACLU called the suit’s dismissal “welcome but overdue.”
Last year, RIDE determined that the school district had improperly issued the suspension, which was based on a school lunchroom conversation that the student, designated as “E. Doe,” had participated in about the then-recent Parkland, Florida school shooting. Barrington appealed RIDE’s decision to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education (CESE), which also found no evidence that the conversation was in any way threatening or disruptive so as to warrant the punishment meted out to him. In so ruling, both the RIDE and CESE decisions enforced a 2016 state law that was enacted to stem the harm caused by unnecessary out-of-school suspensions.
Doe ended up being interrogated by police twice, the second time without his parents being notified. In overturning the suspension, RIDE criticized the school for that lack of notification. The RIDE hearing officer also concluded that
Both the principal and assistant principal testified that E. Doe was a good student with no disciplinary record. … In addition, before E. Doe was questioned by the school authorities, the Barrington Police had concluded that he posed no credible threat to school safety. Indeed, the BMS Principal reached the same conclusion and thus notified parents, teachers and administrators by email before conducting his own investigation, that “it was quickly determined that there was no threat to our learning community or environment.”
The facts make clear that E. Doe was neither a “disruptive student” … nor posed a “demonstrable threat to students, teachers, or administrators” under [state law] and as a result, the imposition of an out-of-school suspension was in violation of an express statutory prohibition.
After CESE upheld RIDE’s decision against the district, the school committee filed a lawsuit in R.I. Superior Court against both the student and RIDE, seeking a reversal of the decision and an award of attorneys’ fees. ACLU cooperating attorney Aubrey Lombardo entered an appearance on the student’s behalf, and yesterday the school district formally agreed to dismiss the suit.
ACLU attorney Lombardo said today: “I am pleased that the Barrington School Committee has finally decided to abide by the RI Department of Education’s well-reasoned decision. Barrington should have accepted that decision at the time that it was rendered. Instead, it chose to sue one of its own students. The School Committee’s frivolous actions have taken an emotional toll on both the student who was the subject of this suit and his family. They were forced to spend time and resources defending against both the initial unjust discipline and the subsequent lawsuit. The School Committee owes a public apology to this young man, and it is my sincere hope that they will use this as a learning experience going forward.”
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “Today’s action is welcome but overdue. We are glad the school committee finally backed down, but it is disheartening that it took so long for them to do the right thing. The dismissal notwithstanding, this whole ordeal was a huge waste of taxpayer dollars and, even more importantly, it set a terrible example for students exercising their legal rights.”
In an effort to address the widespread overuse of suspensions, RI law generally bars of out-of-school suspensions for non-disruptive misbehavior. In this decade, the ACLU of Rhode Island has issued a series of reports analyzing school suspension data, and found that among the most common grounds for suspending children as young as first grade are such non-threatening and subjective infractions as “disorderly conduct” or “disrespect.” This led to passage of the 2016 law restricting out-of-school suspensions. Despite its enactment, high rates of out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions persist, making RIDE’s decision in this case so important.