In what the ACLU of Rhode Island calls an “outrageous and shameful” attack on one of its own students, the Barrington School Committee has filed a lawsuit in R.I. Superior Court against a middle school student who successfully challenged before the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) his three-day out-of-school suspension. In seeking to overturn RIDE’s decision, the school committee is demanding a recovery of its attorneys’ fees against the student and RIDE.

Earlier this year, RIDE determined that the school district had improperly issued the suspension based on a school lunchroom conversation the student participated in. Barrington then appealed the decision to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education (CESE), and the ACLU represented the student in that appeal. Affirming RIDE’s decision, CESE found no evidence that the conversation – prompted by a recent school shooting – was disruptive, a general requirement for out-of-school suspensions. In so ruling, both the RIDE and CESE decisions enforced a 2016 state law enacted to stem the harm caused by unnecessary out-of-school suspensions.

The incident at issue arose when the student, designated as “E. Doe,” and six others were discussing at lunchtime the then-recent Parkland, Florida school shooting. A student who overheard some of the conversation reported it to their parents, who then contacted the police department that some boys – though not Doe – had been talking “about bombs and shooting up the school.” After other students who were questioned mentioned Doe’s participation in the conversation for the first time, police interviewed him that night, and then again at school the next day without notifying his parents that he was being interrogated again.

In overturning the suspension, RIDE criticized the school for not notifying the parents before Doe was interrogated by police a second time. 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.

The school district appealed the decision to the CESE appeals committee. A brief filed by ACLU cooperating attorney Aubrey Lombardo in support of the hearing officer’s ruling noted:

The School Department could not produce a single piece of evidence during the lengthy disciplinary appeal hearing of [Doe], showing that he had made a threatening or intimidating statement. Likewise, they could not produce a single piece of evidence that anything he said, made anyone who overheard feel threatened or intimidated.

After hearing arguments from both sides, the CESE upheld the hearing officer’s decision against the school district. However, the School Committee filed a lawsuit this month asking a court to reverse that ruling. In naming both RIDE and Doe as defendants in the case, the school committee also asked for an award of attorneys’ fees against them.

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said today: “The school committee’s actions against this student are outrageous and shameful. It must be seen as nothing less than an attempt to intimidate children and their families who dare to challenge school disciplinary decisions. The school committee is not only wasting taxpayer money, it is undermining the legislature’s efforts to reduce the harmful effect of suspensions on students.”

ACLU cooperating attorney Lombardo, who has represented Doe before RIDE, added: “I have full faith that RIDE’s sound and reasoned decision will be upheld again on appeal, this time by the Superior Court.  I strongly question the wisdom of a school district suing one of its own students over a three-day suspension that happened over a year and a half ago.  It is unfortunate that Barrington School Committee has forced the student’s parents to expend energy, emotion and resources on a matter that has already been decided in the student’s favor on two occasions.”

The ACLU’s Brown noted that “if the school committee’s intent was merely to name the student as an ‘indispensable party’ to the appeal, the complaint could have made that clear and disavowed any intent to seek a fee award against him.”

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.

A copy of the school committee’s lawsuit and other documents in the case are available here.