S.J., Appellant, v. Malcolm THOMAS and School Board for Escambia County, Florida, Appellees.
In the fall of 2015, S.J. was accused of recording some shenanigans with his cell phone. On the principal’s request, the superintendent recommended the school board remove him from his regular school, and all traditional schools in the county, through disciplinary reassignment. Seeing that he was facing the same consequence as an expulsion, S.J. demanded the same process to ensure the school got the facts right before imposing it. No one had before asked Escambia County for this fairness.
An example of the troubling trends the ACLU of Florida has identified, over the last decade, Escambia County has significantly reduced the number of expulsions and instead now disciplinarily reassigns students. While this may project the image of a more progressive approach to school discipline, it inflicts the same damage of expulsions without properly preserving the students’ rights.
Ultimately, the Escambia County School Board agreed to conduct a hearing consistent with the expulsion procedure in S.J.’s case. However, it refused to follow standard procedures requiring a final order which would allow S.J. to appeal its decision. The school board claimed that S.J. had no right to such a final order—that it had only provided the hearing as a courtesy. Without the final order, S.J. could not challenge his expulsion and remained excluded from all regular schools in his county.
S.J. sued the school board to demand the final order to which he was entitled. He wanted to ensure that all students in Florida—not just those who sought help from the ACLU—would be entitled to a fair hearing before they are removed from a traditional school and deprived of a quality education. Regardless of semantics, whenever a student is removed from school, she should have due process.
In December 2017, the Florida First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee elevated substance over form. No matter the procedure’s name, when school officials shut a student out from attending a traditional school and relegate him to an alternative location, he has the same protections against error as students facing expulsion. As part of Brown’s legacy, this is a victory for education, due process, and students of color in Florida.