C.Y. v. Lakeview Pub. Sch., No. 13-1791 (6th Cir. Feb. 11, 2014)
Abstract: A U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (MI, OH, KY) three-judge panel rules that a student who was suspended and later expelled for having brought a knife to school and threatening another student received adequate procedural due process before disciplinary measures were imposed. The panel upheld the school district’s actions against numerous due process allegations, applying Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975) and Newsome v. Batavia Local Sch. Dist., 842 F.2d 920 (6th Cir. 1988).
Facts/Issues: C.Y., a freshman at Lakeview High School (LHS), tweeted that she was going to stab A.B., a fellow student. Later that day, A.B. and a school counselor reported to Assistant Vice-Principal Heather Huber that C.Y. had brought a knife to school and was threatening to stab A.B. When Huber attempted to locate C.Y., she learned that C.Y. had left school.
Huber conducted an investigation. A.B. showed Huber a tweet she received from C.Y. at 6:30 a.m. that said “stab stab stab. Going to stab stab stab you today to see your insides, ya ya ya,” and told Huber that C.Y. had been bullying her. A.B. reported that a few days prior, C.Y. had posted on Facebook a picture of a T-shirt that she made, with a photograph on it of A.B.’s mother in a coma after a suicide attempt and a caption stating “DEAD BITCH.” Huber also obtained written statements from two other students who said they heard C.Y. threaten to stab A.B. J.Y., a friend of C.Y.’s, confirmed that at 10:00 a.m. that morning, C.Y. had told J.Y. that she planned to stab A.B., and had shown J.Y. a steak knife tucked into the back of her binder. J.Y. prepared a witness statement to that effect. While J.Y. was writing the statement, C.Y. sent her texts, which J.Y. showed to Huber:
12:46: Who told AB about the knife
12:53: Someone did. Hmmm, they’re gonna think she’s a nut case when she tells me. Lol she doesn’t have proof I brang [sic] a knife
1:09: I wasn’t gonna actually stab her
Huber then phoned C.Y.’s mother, Antone. Antone testified that Huber suspended C.Y. during the phone conversation, but Huber testified that she called to schedule a conference and did not suspended C.Y. at that time. A conference was held the next day, involving Huber, C.Y., Antone, and C.Y.’s brother Christopher. At the meeting, Huber informed C.Y. and her family of the charges, the evidence against C.Y., and gave C.Y. an opportunity to provide a written statement giving her side of the story. In her statement, C.Y. admitted to the tweet, and admitted that she threatened A.B. during conversations with two students, but she denied bringing a knife to school
Huber said that after the meeting she decided that C.Y. should be suspended. The school sent C.Y.’s mother a letter informing her of the decision and advising that C.Y. might be expelled as a result of further proceedings mandated by federal and state law regarding the possession of a knife with a blade over three inches. A pre-expulsion hearing was conducted by Lakeview Public Schools (LPS) Superintendent Karl Paulson, at which C.Y., her mother, brother, and Huber were present. According to Huber and Paulson, C.Y. was shown all of the evidence against her, including the witness statements, and was allowed to question Huber about it. Antone denies that C.Y. was ever allowed to review the witness statements and report. At the conclusion of the hearing, Paulson recommended expelling C.Y. for possession of a knife at school and threatening to use it against another student.
The school board held an expulsion hearing, closed at Antone’s request. The board refused to allow C.Y.’s brother to attend or read his statement. However, the board allowed C.Y.’s father to read the statement. At the conclusion of the hearing, the board voted to expel C.Y.
C.Y. filed suit in federal district court against LPS, alleging that she was denied her constitutional rights to procedural due process at her suspension and expulsion hearings. The district granted LPS summary judgment.
Ruling/Rationale: The Sixth Circuit panel affirmed the lower court’s decision. C.Y. raised numerous allegations that her procedural due process rights were violated, all rejected by the panel.
C.Y. argued that Huber suspended her over the phone, prior to providing any due process. The panel held that, even if the appellant’s version of the phone conversation was accurate, the school had the authority under Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975) to suspend C.Y. on an emergency basis, given the information possessed by the school. “Under the circumstances, it would have been reasonable for Huber to direct C.Y. not to return to school until Huber had the opportunity to meet with her. See Goss, 419 U.S. at 582–83 (‘Students whose presence poses a continuing danger to persons or property or an ongoing threat of disrupting the academic process may be immediately removed from school. In such cases, the necessary notice and rudimentary hearing should follow as soon as practicable.’).”
The panel also concluded that the school’s conference met the minimum due process requirements established in Goss. The panel stated: “[M]inimum due-process requirements are met if, during ‘an informal give-and-take between student and disciplinarian,’ the student is ‘told what he is accused of doing and what the basis of the accusation is and then given an opportunity to respond.’” (quoting Goss).
C.Y. also alleged that her suspsension was longer than 10 days, because it began on the day of the phone conversation, and thus the minimal due process procedures articulated in Goss were insufficient. The panel acknowledged that “Goss did not address the due-process requirements for suspensions longer than ten days, noting only that ‘[l]onger suspensions or expulsions for the remainder of the school term, or permanently, may require more formal procedures.’” (quoting Goss). The panel determined that even if the school’s suspension action exceeded ten days, it did not violate C.Y.’s due process rights. Assuming C.Y.’s version of events, she was out of school for only ten days plus the one or two class periods she missed on the day of the phone conversation. “Under these circumstances, the additional deprivation posed by the two extra class periods of suspension is not significant enough to require a deviation from the standards set forth in Goss.”
C.Y. also argued that the school district’s expulsion proceedings violated her due process rights.
C.Y. contended that she was deprived of due process because neither she nor her mother were allowed to read the witness statements or Huber’s report, and therefore she was not advised of the evidence against her. The panel emphasized that “undisputed evidence shows that the substance of the witness statements and the report were conveyed to C.Y. and her mother repeatedly, and no essential facts were withheld.” The student statements reported that C.Y. brought a knife to school, showed the knife to a student, and stated that she intended to stab A.B. The panel noted that C.Y. was informed multiple times that students had reported this information. “Accordingly, whether or not C.Y. was provided copies of the statements and report, the record leaves no doubt that she received an explanation of their contents adequate to prepare her defense, and thus her due process rights were not infringed. See Newsome v. Batavia Local Sch. Dist., 842 F.2d 920, 927 (6th Cir. 1988)(student has a right to ‘an explanation of the evidence the authorities have’) (emphasis added) (quoting Goss, 419 U.S. at 581).”
C.Y. also alleged that she was denied the right to present witnesses on her behalf because the school board did not permit her brother (Christopher) to attend and speak at the expulsion hearing. Her brother’s statement was read to the board by her father. The panel addressed this question by balancing three factors: (1) C.Y.’s important interest in her education; (2) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used and the probable value, if any, of the requested procedural safeguard; and (3) the government’s interest, including the fiscal and administrative burden that the additional procedural safeguard would entail. The panel determined that “nothing in the record  suggest[s] that preventing Christopher from making comments in addition to his written statement increased the risk of an erroneous deprivation of C.Y.’s rights.” It concluded: “On these facts, denying C.Y. the additional safeguard of allowing Christopher to be present at her expulsion hearing and make unspecified comments in addition to his written statement did not violate procedural due process.”
C.Y. also alleged that she was denied the right to an impartial tribunal because the school administrators had communicated with the board and convinced the board of her guilt prior to the hearing. Citing Newsome, the panel stated that “absent some showing of bias, it does not violate due process for school administrators to communicate ex parte with the Board, or even to participate in the Board’s deliberations.” It pointed out that C.Y. made no charge of bias, only that school administrators had convinced the board of C.Y.’s guilt in advance of the hearing. “Due process is not implicated in those circumstances.”
C.Y. further alleged that she was not told that she had the right to an attorney. The panel rejected this argument as well, stating “Students do not necessarily have a due-process right to an attorney at expulsion hearings, let alone a right to be notified that they are entitled to an attorney.”
C.Y. v. Lakeview Pub. Sch., No. 13-1791 (6th Cir. Feb. 11, 2014)
[Editor's Note: A student's disciplinary defense usually consists of a parade of procedural due process arguments. For those circumstances, this is a good decision for school attorneys to clip and keep handy.
In September 2011, Legal Clips summarized the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (MI, OH, KY, TN) decision in Heyne v. Metropolitan Nashville Pub. Sch. holding that a suspended high school student's lawsuit stated valid procedural due process claims. The panel concluded that the student had made legally sufficient allegations that the decision-makers involved in his hearing were biased on the basis of race.]