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COPAA Files Brief in MN Asserting Harms Caused by Harsh Disciplinary Measures

Tuesday, January 5, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Denise Marshall

COPAA wrote and filed an amicus brief in Minnesota’s Supreme Court on behalf of Respondent, A.D., In the Matter of the Expulsion of A.D., a high school student who was subjected to harsh disciplinary policies.  A.D. does not have a disability however; the policies in place (zero tolerance) have great implications and effect on students with disabilities. 

The United South Central School District (School Board) appealed the Court of Appeals decision.  The Court of Appeals overturned the decision of the School Board and the Commissioner of Education (Commissioner) to suspend A.D. when she inadvertently left in her purse and brought to school a three-inch-hunting knife she had used to do farm work over the weekend.  The Amici brief focuses on the harms caused by harsh disciplinary measures.  Amici also assert that the Court of Appeals correctly interpreted Minnesota’s Pupil Fair Dismissal Act (PFDA), see Minn. Stat. § 121A.49 (2014), when it found that the school board had no evidentiary basis to find that A.D. willfully violated the school district’s weapons policy or that she engaged in willful conduct that endangered herself or others.  Amici for A.D. assert that too many school officials have based their disciplinary policies and practices on the fallacious notion that keeping schools safe and protecting students' opportunities to learn are irreconcilable principles.  Indeed, there is ample evidence that schools across the country over-rely upon exclusionary discipline practices that undermine students' educational opportunities, put them at greater risk for involvement with the juvenile or criminal justice systems, and fail to demonstrate improvements in school safety or the quality of the learning environment. Moreover, these harsh punishments are often meted out for relatively minor misbehaviors that do not threaten the safety of the school community.  Appellants have never adequately addressed how the punishment in A.D.’s case fit the offense, particularly in light of her lack of willfulness and that there was no actual threat posed by her inadvertence.                                                                                                 

In addition, the brief discusses the effect of exclusionary policies and the effects on students of color and students with disabilities.  Exclusionary discipline not only puts educational opportunities of all Minnesota students at risk, it also contributes to racial and other inequalities in education. In Minnesota, Black, Latino, and American Indian students are all more likely to have their education interrupted by exclusionary school discipline than White students. Studies show that students of color are punished more severely for less serious or more subjective infractions.  Amici assert that this Court, in evaluating the appropriate application of the PFDA, must consider the disparate treatment and outcome inherent in the exclusionary discipline system.

It is the consistent and unwavering experience of Amici that schools with large populations of students of color frequently tend to rely more on exclusionary discipline than predominantly White schools.  Further, it is the Amicis observation and experience that the same behavior that triggers little-to-no response in many predominantly White communities frequently results in severe consequences in communities of color, with all of the long-term consequences that tend to follow.

Exclusionary disciplinary policies also disproportionately harm students with disabilities.  A 2015 report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA found that in 2011-12 both elementary and secondary students with disabilities across the country were suspended at double the rate than their non-disabled peers. Zero tolerance policies impose harsh consequences upon students without regard to the circumstances of their behavior.  Here, the school district expelled A.D. from her school community without making adequate findings that her inadvertent conduct posed an actual threat.  The Court of Appeals appropriately found that the PFDA does not permit this kind of disproportionate and draconian result.

Accordingly, Amici respectfully submit that the Minnesota Supreme Court should uphold the underlying decision and order that A.D.'s expulsion be vacated and deleted from her educational record.  Amici were: Children’s Defense Fund, Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Council on Crime and Justice, ISAIAH, Legal Rights Center, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, Professor Jason P. Nance, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Saint Paul branch, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.  Selene Almazan authored the brief with local counsel in Minnesota, Christopher Crutchfield; Alice Nelson, Alexis Casillas and Catherine Merino Reisman assisted with the editing and drafting, as did counsel for all amici listed above.  COPAA members Andrea Jepsen and Amy Goetz represent the student, A.D.

Read the Brief here

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