The Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday filed two complaints with an Alabama juvenile court alleging the Pike County Board of Education arbitrarily suspended two students in violation of their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.
“Students across Alabama continue to be excluded from school without regard for their due process rights, leading to unwarranted and unlawful suspensions and expulsions,” said Michael Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s children’s rights project, in a statement.
“This is particularly troubling for Black students who are three times more likely to be excluded from school for minor and subjective infractions than their white peers. Education is an important aspect of a young person’s life and the decision to exclude them from school should not be taken lightly,” Tafelski continued.
Both complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, ask the court to reverse suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both Black and former students at Goshen High School.
The complaints state that on Nov. 22, 2019, both students were approached by the school’s principal “in connection with alleged rumors that a group of students had ‘smoked’ that same day in the parking lot at school.” The principal alleged he had video security footage of them doing so, but wouldn’t show the students the footage, according to the complaints.
Both boys told the principal that they had not used marijuana, but had both accompanied another student to their car in the parking lot, and both left when the other student showed them what appeared to be drug paraphernalia.
“The students, both seniors at the time, denied the allegations and even took drug tests that showed they had no drugs in their system that day. But the school refused to consider this evidence,” the SPLC said in a press release.
The complaints state that the district failed to provide the students proper notice, including details about their charges, evidence of wrongdoing, a meaningful opportunity to be heard or to present evidence of their own and question witnesses during their hearings.
“Only you know what did or didn’t happen in that vehicle … you dodged a bullet here because we didn’t have the proof that we need,” said one school board member to one of the students during his hearing, according to the complaint.
“There was no proper investigation at all,” said Shatarra Pelton, Dakarai’s mother, in a statement. “It was unorganized and overblown. The school was unable to produce any evidence other than hearsay.”
After a brief hearing, both seniors were suspended for the rest of the school year, missing out on a chance to finish their high school athletics and potentially missing out on college football scholarships as a result, the complaints state.
Prior to their suspensions, both students had no disciplinary referrals and were making good grades, according to the complaints.
“On Jan. 13, the students appealed the Council’s decision to the Pike County Board of Education, and the board agreed to consider allowing the students to return to GHS if they participated in drug treatment classes, passed urine and hair follicle drug tests and maintained perfect attendance at the alternative school. After completing all the requirements, the students returned to school on Feb. 21 – three months after their removal,” the SPLC said in the release.
“He had a rough senior year, to say the least,” said Tasha Martin, RaQuan’s mother, in a statement. “He missed senior night, he missed everything.”
“They didn’t get to play not one game,” Martin said. “They had some coaches visit them while they were in alternative school but when the coaches found out that they couldn’t go back to school, they stopped coming. Our families were devastated; sometimes me and Ms. Pelton would be on the phone and just cry to each other. It has been really tough.”
“I want schools to understand that it’s not just a moment you’re ruining, you’re ruining a lifetime,” Pelton said. “With no factual basis, only an unproven accusation, you have just completely deterred a student’s life. Most schools say that they are there for their students, but you are showing them the total opposite.”
Pike County Schools during the 2019-2020 school year referred 49 students to a disciplinary hearing, according to the SPLC. Of those, 48 students were either suspended or expelled, and although Black students made up less than 50 percent of the student population, Black students made up 80 percent of the referrals. On average, Black students make up 77 percent of all students referred for disciplinary hearings in the district, according to the SPLC.