In a first-of-its-kind decision that could have implications for students across Missouri, a parent represented by the organization Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM) has reached a settlement with the St. Louis Public School District in a case involving their child missing out on education while suspended from school.
In a first for Missouri, the plaintiff received a monetary award and an order for the district to change its policies, something the lead attorney on the case said will set a positive precedent in an area of education access law that disproportionately affects students of color.
The parent, known as S.W., filed the lawsuit on behalf of L.W., then a 14-year-old freshman at Roosevelt High School. L.W. was suspended from ordinary classes after allegedly being involved in a fight in the school’s cafeteria. He was then enrolled in online classes through the district’s Virtual School Program, which took place in a separate area of the school.
On his second day in the Virtual School Program, L.W. and another student allegedly stole Metro bus tickets from a teacher’s desk. This resulted in L.W. being suspended from all physical St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) campuses for at least the rest of the school year. However, he would maintain access to his online classes, which the district called an “alternative education placement.”
According to Luz Maria Henriquez, the lead attorney for LSEM on the case, this caused considerable difficulties for L.W. He did not have a computer at home and was expected to complete his courses on a computer at the public library, but the library computers had enforced time limits on computer use. Library employees also reported L.W. to a truancy officer, believing he should have been in school. He was also not supervised by a teacher and was in effect expected to teach himself the material for his classes.
Ultimately, L.W. was absent from school from 125 days and earned no credits towards high school graduation for the year.
“We had a lot of concern about whether this was in fact an education at all,” Henriquez said.
L.W.’s parent filed a lawsuit alleging that he had been denied the right to an education, claiming that what the district called “alternative education placement” was actually discipline which he had been subjected to without due process. LSEM’s attorneys agreed.
Henriquez said the case was an example of the practice of “shadow discipline,” in which schools use alternate names for practices that amount to suspending or expelling their students, failing to provide them with real opportunities to continue their education.
“The learning that could have happened was really limited,” Henriquez said.
The plaintiff's lawsuit against SLPS went on for three years. A judge denied SLPS’s motion for summary judgment, finding that there was standing for the parent to sue. Ultimately, the plaintiff reached a settlement with the district for monetary compensation. The settlement also requires the district to change its policies. SLPS will now have to provide suspended students placed on the Visual School Program with supervision and give students additional opportunities to appeal their suspensions.
Henriquez said this case is likely to set a positive precedent for similar lawsuits. These unjust disciplinary practices are common, she said, especially for students of color like L.W., and represent a deep legacy of racial inequality in education.
“Accessing that education is really important for our children and our community,” Henriquez said.
Henriquez encouraged parents who feel their children are facing unjust discipline to advocate for them at the school level, but they can also reach out to LSEM’s Education Justice Program, which aims to address the root causes of the school-to-prison pipeline. Prospective clients can contact LSEM at (314) 534-4200 or 1-800-444-0514.