Throughout law school I worked with the Suspension Representation Project (SRP) as an advocate in New York City public school suspension hearings, and am now helping to coordinate a new project at Proskauer through our partnership with SRP and The Center for Popular Democracy. This post will examine the school suspension process in New York City, and the great need for increased attention to this issue and representation for the students in these hearings.
As set forth in a prior For Good post, it is well established that missed school days at the primary and secondary level have a significant negative impact on student performance, decrease the likelihood of successful graduation, and increase the likelihood that a student will be arrested. Unfortunately, many schools are ill-equipped to intervene in negative student behaviors other than by removing students from the classroom.
When a public school in New York City intends to suspend a student for more than five academic days, the student is entitled to a hearing with the office of the superintendent to determine the length of the suspension. There is no right to representation in this hearing, and the rules of evidence are significantly relaxed: hearsay is admissible, students are not guaranteed the right to confront their accuser, and schools are able to add evidence to their case until moments before the hearing. Increasing the difficulty of mounting a proper defense, students may find out their hearing date with as little as three days’ notice. In this quasi-legal setting, students who do not have an advocate familiar with the Suspension Office’s procedural rules are at a significant disadvantage.
Proskauer is working to build a pool of experienced attorneys who can act as advocates. With a large number of trained advocates, we hope to overcome the logistical challenge presented by short notice. The ultimate goal, beyond helping as many students as we can, is that our project will provide a working model for others in the private sector interested in expanding access to counsel for suspended students.
When conducted with an advocate who is familiar with the procedural and evidentiary rules, suspension hearings present an opportunity to significantly shorten a suspension or have a student immediately reinstated. Without an advocate, these outcomes are much less likely. A parent or guardian may not know the significance of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that has not been followed, or that the evidence being presented against their child does not meet the requirements for authentication. I have seen schools try to suspend students based on the written statements of other students taken days after an alleged infraction, or bring one staff member to a hearing to tell multiple witnesses’ accounts of an incident. A trained advocate is in a much better position to make successful objections.
Advocates can also provide the vital service of ensuring that student participants in this system understand their choices and can make an informed decision. The families that I have worked with are mostly low-income, including many single parents and families in which only the suspended child spoke English. The choices facing the parent of a suspended student are overwhelming. Should they plead no-contest, assuming that self-advocacy in a hearing will only worsen the ultimate suspension? Should they go through with the hearing, and make their child defend against accusations by adult teachers and staff from their school? An advocate who explains the process and provides guidance on these choices can remove a significant source of stress and help a family know that they have made the best possible decision for their child. Representation also ensures that a student understands why they are being suspended for the time they are and allows them to engage productively with their own education going forward.
Having an advocate, therefore, is critically important for a suspended student and their family. By providing guidance through the intimidating hearing process, advocating for fair treatment, and providing transparency to families, advocates can improve suspension outcomes. Also, to the extent increased representation reduces unnecessary suspensions, and promotes greater confidence in the system, the benefits of this project promise to go well beyond the individual students we are representing.