Prove it! School Suspensions and Expulsions in Mississippi

If you have gone to court, or watched a legal or police drama, you are probably familiar with the concept of  “standard of proof.”  In civil cases juries are instructed that they must use the “preponderance of evidence” standard before ruling for a party. In criminal cases, before the Defendant is convicted they are told to consider whether they are  guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Even children are familiar with this concept.  Who hasn’t heard a young child taunt another telling them, “You can’t prove I did it!” 

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This is the essence of basic fairness. Before you take away something from someone in the United States of America, whether it is property, an entitlement, or their freedom, you have to “prove it” using an adequate standard of proof.

Despite this, for years Mississippi would suspend and expel students  in proceedings without a standard of proof.  Thus a student accused of starting a fight, or phoning in a bomb threat, or having a weapon, could be expelled without any proof whatsoever. This was a clear and plain deprivation of their constitutional right to due process, and many students lost their right to a public education based on nothing more than unproven suspicions on the part of school administrators.

After MCJ began petitioning local school districts to adopt a standard of proof, and filed several lawsuits against districts which had failed to do so, the Legislature amended the law to provide that all long term suspensions and expulsions were required to employ what it termed a “standard of proof” of “substantial evidence.

The problem with this is that “substantial evidence” is not actually a standard of proof, and – even if it were – it does not rise to the level required to take away a constitutional right like education.  The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the deprivation of fundamental constitutional rights requires a standard of proof of “clear and convincing evidence.” Moreover, the law deprives school districts of the ability to adopt a constitutionally adequate standard of proof 

In consequence MCJ has introduced a bill with the help of Rep. Hank Zuber, H.B. 755, which is intended to require “clear and convincing evidence” before a student is suspended more than ten days or expelled.

MCJ has also filed just commenced litigation against a college which suspended an emotionally disabled 18  year old student for 12 months for having an autistic break down after a motor vehicle accident, all without employing a constitutionally adequate standard or proof in the suspension hearing.

If you have a child you feel was wrongfully suspended or expelled for something they did not do, or for which they should not have been punished, giveth Mississippi Center for Justice a call at 601.352.2269. We’re here to help!

Jeremy is the Educational Opportunities Director for the Mississippi Center for Justice.