To learn more about Alabama’s Education Lab and receive alerts about stories and events, Sign up for her newsletter, Ed Chat.
Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online.
Senator Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, brought the bill, SB79. He said his proposal would not stop disciplinary action outright, but that a nationwide system would ensure that students received the same treatment for the same offenses, regardless of race or district.
“A fair trial does not come in different flavors and in different groups,” he told opponents this month. “Do it as you say, not everyone will have it equally.”
The legislation provides for a unified procedure of proper procedure that will oblige all Alabama counties to provide a fair trial for students facing suspension for more than 11 days. The bill also:
- Prohibits suspensions and expulsions for students in pre-K to fifth grades, unless their behavior endangers the physical safety of others.
- Prohibits suspensions and deportations for violations of disengagement or delay.
- Requires notification of long-term punishment to guardians 10 days in advance
Supporters said the bill provides “simple rights” for students facing suspension and could help prevent children from losing valuable school time. But opponents had concerns about student privacy and feared it would be unfairly bound by the school staff.
The bill, SB79, was first introduced three years ago and gained momentum before the plague hit. Supporters said they feel they have a reasonable chance the bill will pass this year after it gets Senate approval, but now time is running out as the bill is delayed in committee. The House Education Policy Committee voted Wednesday to move it to another week.
“We want to do it right, but there are some practical things here that just will not work,” Bart Reeves of the Alabama School Councils Association told the committee Wednesday.
A 1975 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld the due process rights of students facing suspension or deportation. But Alabama is the only state in the Southeast without fair school procedures written into state law, according to a 2020 report of Alabama Public Affairs Research Council. Individual districts have their own disciplinary measures – but students are not necessarily guaranteed the same rights from district to district.
According to the report, black students in Alabama face more severe disciplinary measures than white students for similar offenses, and are often at higher risk of dropping out and unprepared for college or work.
In January 2020, the SPLC sued the Montgomery County School Board for violating the rights of due process of the two students who were arrested and deported from Lee High School after being falsely accused of possessing a gun, which was a cell phone. Even after the students were acquitted in juvenile court of these criminal charges, the school administration refused to allow them to return to school, according to the lawsuit.
In October of that year, the organization filed two complaints against the Pike County Board of Education for arbitrarily suspending students.
One of those students was the son of Shatara Pelton, a Dakrai, who she says was falsely accused of smoking marijuana in a school parking lot in Alabama during his senior year. The county refused to accept two drug tests he voluntarily conducted, suspended him and denied him a fair and impartial hearing, Plato wrote in a letter to lawmakers this month.
In the letter, Platon said her son was an exemplary student and a star athlete with no previous disciplinary history, expecting to play sports in college.
“But when he was denied a fair and impartial hearing and arbitrarily suspended from school for months, he lost those opportunities and was forced to attend an alternative school that resembled a prison and offered a very inferior education,” Pelton wrote.
The SPLC is among proponents of the bill, who say more uniform disciplinary guidelines could have protected students like Platon’s son and others who they said missed days and weeks of teaching due to unfair disciplinary actions.
“I think one thing we can all agree on is that we want all students to be in school,” Jerome Diz, director of SPLC Action Fund policy, told lawmakers this month. “And we want to make sure that no student is expelled from school unjustly or unjustly for no good reason.”
Leaders of the Alabama School Councils Association, Alabama School Supervisors and the Alabama School Leaders Council spoke out against the bill during a public hearing earlier in March.
Jane Williams, who worked with Smitherman on the AASB bill, said at an earlier hearing that local school councils do support a fair trial. But she said the section that prevents most suspensions for elementary school students “goes too far,” and does not address today’s disruptions, such as tic-tac-toe challenges.
The AASB also wants a language that will extend the timeline required for a proper procedure to 31 days rather than 11, and that will add instruction that does not include alternative placement in the school.
Ryan Hollingsworth, at SSA, stormed a directive requiring counties to prove intent in disciplinary cases, while CLASE Vic Wilson said the bill could open the door to bullying and infringe on witness privacy. He also feared that the condition of requiring parental notice would slow down the process.
“How can we ensure we are not up there as the judge and jury because the parents will not show up?” Said Wilson.
Some Republicans in the House of Representatives on the committee said they believe disciplinary policy should depend solely on school leaders. Others have strayed from the debate on a fair trial, saying they feel the bill encourages schools to soften discipline.
“We took the Bible out of the classroom and took the paddle out of the classroom and then we wonder why we are where we are,” said Tracy Estes’ representative, R-Winfield.
For Representative Tashina Morris, D-Montgomery, the hearing came close to home. She, too, was one of “those young people left to talk,” she said. She sat next to the teacher from first grade to ninth grade, and saw similar behaviors in her son, who “played a lot,” she said, but never got into trouble.
“There will be some kids out there just like me, just like my son, who need it,” she said of the bill.
But after working during the break to address concerns about student privacy and burdensome language, supporters said Wednesday they had reached a deadlock with education officials on several key issues: notifying parents within 10 days of long-term penalties and requiring principals to determine a student’s condition. Intention before sentencing.
Republicans like Mike Baker said they were “conflicted” after hearing the concerns of educators and lawyers, while Morris expressed frustration at the committee’s pace.
“I listen to people who say we’re for the kids,” she said, “but we’re in the middle.”
The committee will meet again on Tuesday to vote on the bill. If it passes, it will move to the house floor for final approval.
Rebecca Grisbach is a member of the Alabama B. Educational Lab AL.com. It is supported through a partnership with Report for America. Learn more Here And contribute Here.