Unfair Suspensions Removed From Records of Washington State Students

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
July 22, 1999 12:00 am

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SUNNYSIDE, WA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Sunnyside High School students and their parents have negotiated an agreement with the Sunnyside School District in Yakima County to clear illegally imposed suspensions from the students’ school records.

The suspensions were imposed when the students left school last November to protest the passage of Initiative 200, a measure restricting affirmative action programs.

“I am happy that we were able to persuade the School District to remove the mark on my daughter’s record,” said Luz Maria Ortiz, a parent of one of the suspended students. “It wasn’t fair for the school to suspend my daughter, especially without giving us a chance to discuss it with them first.”

The ACLU of Washington, representing the students and parents, said that the Sunnyside School District acted unconstitutionally and violated state law by suspending the students en masse, without any opportunity for a conference, and without any individual determination of the appropriate discipline for the situation. Mount Vernon students who took part in a similar protest simply received detention.

Constitutional principles and state law require that the parents and students be given an opportunity to discuss proposed suspension with school officials before it is imposed. Schools must also use progressive discipline, trying less severe measures before imposing suspension. Suspension is not authorized for the first time a student has an unexcused absence.

“We’re pleased the District agreed to correct the problem for all of the affected students without protracted litigation,” said Lucy Lee Helm, an ACLU of Washington attorney. “This resolution will allow the students to focus on continuing their education without worrying about a disciplinary record that should not have been imposed.”

On November 4, 1998, school officials suspended more than 160 students after they left school grounds to take part in a peaceful protest against the passage of Initiative 200. The students believed that the initiative, which limits affirmative action in public employment, public contracting, and public education admissions and hiring decisions, would harm their future educational and economic opportunities.

When the students returned to school grounds after the protest, they found out that they had been suspended for three days, effective immediately, without any opportunity for a conference with school officials and without notice to their parents.

Last November, parents, students and their representatives met with School District officials to seek reversal of the suspensions and to have them removed from the students’ records. The District reduced the suspensions to two days but declined to clear the students’ records. Several students and parents then retained legal counsel and were able to obtain an agreement to have the suspensions removed from the records of all of the affected students without filing a lawsuit.

Columbia Legal Services also provided legal representation.

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