Washington Supreme Court Addresses Students’ Due Process Rights in Disciplinary Actions

The Washington Supreme Court has recently decided a case involving school discipline.  A Washington public school student filed suit after being suspended and not allowed to return to in-person school after the suspension was over.

The Court noted that students facing suspension are entitled to due process because they have a property interest in their educational benefits.  Students also have statutory protections in Washington.

RCW 28A.600.015 requires the superintendent of public instruction to adopt rules regarding the substantive and procedural due process rights of students.  The rules may allow a district to use informal due process procedures for short-term suspensions, if the superintendent determines that the students’ interests are adequately protected.  The law prohibits a suspension or expulsion from being indefinite.  Short-term suspension procedures apply for suspensions up to 10 consecutive school days.  Emergency removal must be converted to another form of corrective action within 10 school days if they do not end within that timeframe.  The law also prohibits schools from using long-term suspension or expulsion as discretionary discipline.

According to the opinion, the plaintiff was removed from school on an emergency basis, and the removal was subsequently converted to a long-term suspension. The plaintiff’s suspension was affirmed on appeal.  At that point, there was a set date for the plaintiff to return to school.

The plaintiff argued the district was required to create a culturally responsive reengagement plan after imposing long-term suspension. The Court agreed that the school was required to have a meeting with the student and his parents or guardians within 20 days of the long-term suspension pursuant to RCW 28A.600.022(1). The district, however, informed the plaintiff he would not be allowed to return to the school without a hearing.

The plaintiff sought transfer, and when that was denied, he demanded to return to the school.  The district denied his request in an email, citing his refusal to change his hairstyle that was allegedly gang-associated along with the behavior leading to the suspension.  The Court pointed out the reasons given by the district were disciplinary, but there had not been any new disciplinary proceedings and the defendant had not been provided a hearing related to the denial of his request to come back to school.

The Court noted WAC 392-400-480 states the procedures for extending an expulsion.  WAC 392-400-480 allows a principal to petition the school district superintendent to extend an expulsion when there is a risk to public health or safety.

The Court further noted that the district was limited by the conditions set forth in WAC 392-400-430.  WAC 392-400-430 provides that a student’s expulsion or suspension cannot be indefinite and must have a set end date.  Additionally, if the district enrolls the student in another program, it cannot preclude them from returning to their “regular educational setting” after that end date unless the school district superintendent grants a petition to extend the expulsion, the student is excluded from their regular educational setting pursuant to WAC 392-400-810, or the student is otherwise precluded by law from returning.

The district conceded that none of those exceptions applied in this case, but argued the school board had discretionary power under RCW 28A.320.015(1) to make a discretionary placement decision based on concerns about safety.  It further argued that it had a written policy that established the right and responsibility to consider safety in making decisions regarding placement and enrollment.

The Court noted, however, that WAC 392-400-430(8)(b) required the district to let the plaintiff go back to his regular educational setting when his suspension ended.  Additionally, pursuant to RCW 28A.320.015(1)(a), school boards are not permitted to adopt policies that conflict with laws.  The Court further noted that the district could not avoid the statutory procedural due process protections by framing its denial of the student’s request to return to school as an enrollment decision.

The Court also rejected the district’s argument that the student was arguing for a right to an education at the school of his choice, noting that he was seeking to return to his regular educational setting after his suspension.  The Court also noted that his enrollment in the online program during his suspension met the requirement for students to receive educational services while suspended but did not act as a substitute for placement after the suspension concluded.

The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court’s decision that the plaintiff had been suspended indefinitely and was entitled to return to his regular educational setting after the suspension ended without additional disciplinary action allowed by statute.

The plaintiff sought declaratory relief allowing him to go back to his school and provide compensatory education. The Court noted that the statutes and regulations regarding school discipline were silent as to remedies.   It therefore remanded the case to the superior court to determine appropriate equitable relief.

The Court also held that compensatory education is available to those who denied rights guaranteed by state law, and not just to plaintiffs in special education litigation.

The Court affirmed the decision of the appeals court and remanded for the superior court to determine the appropriate remedy, which could include compensatory education.

Although this was not a Title IX case, it addresses Washington public school students’ due process rights in disciplinary matters.  If your child is facing suspension or expulsion, an experienced school discipline or Washington Title IX defense attorney can help you understand your child’s rights under Washington and federal law.  Set up a consultation with Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562.


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