JUDGE ORDERS NEWARK CHARTER TO RETURN STUDENT AFTER IMPROPER SUSPENSION
An Administrative Law Judge has ordered the North Star Academy Charter School in Newark to return a middle school student to school after a two-month suspension for a violation of North Star’s discipline code. The order issued by Administrative Law Judge Thomas Betancourt provides critical protections for charter school students who are excluded from school while they undergo special education evaluations.
The lawsuit underscores the express mandate in NJ law affording students in charter schools the same due process protections from suspension or expulsion as would apply to students in every public school. Charter schools such as North Star can adopt their own codes of conduct, which are often highly prescriptive, but they are prohibited from imposing unreasonable or overly harsh disciplinary penalties for infractions.
The North Star student, T.D., was suspended from the charter school for an incident that occurred in December 2015, pending a hearing before North Star’s Board of Trustees. At the Board hearing, T.D.’s mother requested that the school’s child study team evaluate T.D. to determine eligibility to receive special education services. The Board issued a written decision, suspending T.D. for a total of 56 school days and permitting a return to school on March 22, 2016. The Board also granted T.D.’s mother’s request, agreeing to provide T.D. with a special education evaluation.
At the end of T.D.’s suspension, the child study team had completed a portion of the special education evaluation. But North Star claimed that as part of the evaluation the child study team required psychiatric clearance, which had not yet been provided. By letter, the Board advised T.D.’s parents that due to the ongoing special education evaluation, they had decided to extend T.D.’s suspension for an additional 38 school days, through May 20.
Education Law Center represented T.D. and T.D.’s mother in the lawsuit against North Star, part of the New York City-based Uncommon Schools charter chain, claiming a violation of T.D.’s due process rights.
ELC and petitioners filed a motion for emergent relief as well as a due process petition, arguing that North Star lacked authority to extend T.D.’s suspension beyond the 56-day period imposed by the Board without evidence that T.D. committed an additional code of conduct violation.
Judge Betancourt found that, although T.D. was provided with home instruction throughout the suspension, an extended suspension would cause the student to suffer irreparable harm as T.D. would be “denied access to any school activity or event, interactions with…peers, and interaction with…teachers.” Judge Betancourt explained that continued home instruction could not replace those experiences and that T.D. must be returned to school.
Importantly, Judge Betancourt also applied a statute to T.D., a charter school student, which provides due process to students in public schools. He stated that “a suspended student is entitled to a hearing before the Board of Education. The continuation of T.D.’s suspension…was without notice or hearing…T.D. had the legal right to a hearing and it was not provided.”
Commissioner of Education David Hespe adopted Judge Betancourt’s order with modifications, keeping all major provisions of the decision intact. Commissioner Hespe noted that the Board’s determination to extend T.D.’s suspension was unauthorized because the regulation under which North Star claimed authority “does not permit a district to keep a child out of school while determining if a child is eligible for special education services, and a long-term suspension for such reasons is an improper use of” the regulation.
“Judge Betancourt’s order is important for charter school students, who – he makes clear – are covered by the State’s due process laws,” said Shira Baron, ELC’s Equal Justice Works Fellow, who represented T.D. “Students and their families can expect that charter schools will not suspend or expel students without following the same due process protections that apply to all public schools.”
Parents, students or educators who have questions or concerns about Judge Betancourt’s decision and its implications are encouraged to contact ELC.
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