Harris ex rel. Harris v. Pontotoc County School Dist., — F.3d —, 2011 WL 814972 (5th Cir., March 10, 2011)
Back in 2008, when Derek Harris was in eighth grade, he got suspended and had to attend “alternative school” for violating the school district’s technology use policy. School officials accused Derek of possessing a keylogger program, of launching a denial of service attack on the school’s network (from the computer his mom used in her job as secretary for the elementary school’s principal), and bypassing security to access the DOS prompt. (Kudos to the kid for getting in trouble for two kinds of “D-O-S” nefariousness!)
Derek’s parents, on his behalf, sued the school in federal court, arguing that the suspension and transfer to alternative school violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The school district moved for summary judgment. The court granted the motion.
It quickly dispensed with the argument that sending Derek to an alternative school violated his rights. It observed that a school district may not withdraw the right to a public education on grounds of misconduct absent fundamentally fair procedures to determine whether the misconduct has occurred. Since transferring him to an alternative education program did not deny access to public education, it did not violate his Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The court likewise held that the suspension was proper and did not violate Derek’s constitutional interests. It reviewed the suspension in light of the 1975 Supreme Court case of Goss v. Lopez, which requires that a student being suspended be given oral or written notice of the charges against him and, if he denies them, an explanation of the evidence the authorities have and an opportunity to present his side of the story.
In this case, the court found that Derek was notified of the charges on the day he was suspended. He had numerous opportunities to meet with school officials, to hear some of the charges, and to explain and respond. The processes he was afforded, the court found, were sufficient to satisfy the Fourteenth Amendment.