A Boston Criminal Defense Attorney Discusses Whether You Need A Lawyer At A School Disciplinary Hearing

Most Massachusetts schools are now closed for the summer. For some students, however, the ability to attend class ended long before the end of the school year. It is a problem that is not merely local, but national as well.

Take 15-year-old Nick S, for example. Nick was by all accounts a good kid. He was a Boy Scout and played on the football team at high school. Nick even did well in school and helped out at home by caring for his mother, Sandy, as she battled Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Then, one day Nick purchased one capsule of JWH-018, a then-legal compound that mimics the effects of marijuana at school. The school, having a strict policy against drugs, guns and campus crimes, found out about the purchase. Nick was questioned by authorities, admitted his wrongdoing and apologized.

You might think it would end there…or at least shortly thereafter. You would be wrong.

The school held a disciplinary hearing. Nick’s parents and his mother’s nurse accompanied Nick to it. Just them. That’s right, no attorney.

You see, a school administrator discouraged them from bringing an attorney. You know, much the same way police officers often do as they sit down to take your statement or invite you to a Massachusetts Clerk Magistrate’s Hearing. The administrator explained that bringing a lawyer would be unnecessarily adversarial.

Imagine their surprise when the hearing became an hour and a half of badgering and harassment. According to Nick’s dad, it was “adversarial to an extreme.”

“They were badgering him and impugning his integrity. It brought him to tears, had me in tears, my nurse in tears.” To say nothing of the effect on Nick’s seriously ill mother.

As a result of the hearing, Nick had to be transferred to another school.
He committed suicide six days after starting there.

Now, surrounded by pictures of his late young son, Nick’s dad is trying to make some sense of it all and why his son had to die. “I thought with Nick’s record, with this being a first-time infraction and with the fact he possessed something that they didn’t even know what it was, surely they couldn’t throw the book at him,” he says “I was warned that a lawyer would make the proceeding unnecessarily adversarial, so I didn’t pursue any legal advice at that time.”

Attorney Sam’s Take On Counsel And School Disciplinary Hearings

“Aw come on, Sam. I’m sorry about this tragedy and all, but that is a pretty extreme situation, isn’t it? I mean, how often does something like that happen?”

You would be surprised.

No, most cases do not end in suicide. However, many cases end with the child’s life, and therefore the life of the family, irrevocably devastated. Children are suspended or even expelled. Sometimes this occurs while there is a companion case pending in the criminal justice system, but the school decides not to await the result.

Particularly at a time where everyone is particularly fearful of any school violence, let alone the new and mind-numbing excuse for Massachusetts anti-bullying legislation, schools want to appear “tough”.

That’s right…just like in court.

Only, this is not in court. It is in school. School- where one would expect the powers that be to be mindful of and actually care about the families it is supposed to serve. One might actually go out on a limb and hope it might even be reluctant to ruin the life of one of its students simply because they did something stupid during whicht nobody got hurt.

Therefore, it is easy to see how parents might be trusting of school officials as they represent that the hornets nest which awaits them won’t be antagonistic unless they bring one of us nasty minions of the devil (lawyers) to protect and advise them.

Erent Pattison, director of the Middleton Center for Children’s Rights at Drake University Law School, says he has seen dozens of cases in which a school’s disciplinary proceeding fails to conform to fundamental concepts of fairness, such as maintaining impartiality. Rather than the procedural protections one might expect to ensure fairness and avoid arbitrariness or capriciousness, the schools trample over the rights of families. If there is not lawyer to help, then the family never even knows that they have said rights until it is far too late.

But, by then, the damage is done. The trusting family, who merely wanted to help their child live and learn from making a mistake, has walked the youth before a verbal firing squad with the result already written on the wall.

“These school proceedings can have tremendous ramifications, and a lawyer provides the best protection,” says Thalia González, a politics professor at Occidental College who specializes in juvenile justice issues.

The fact is that school disciplinary hearings are considered quasi-administrative legal proceedings. In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Goss v. Lopez that students facing such discipline have a right to due process. This means that in cases of potential long-term suspension or expulsion, the student is entitled to fair notice, the right to an attorney, and the opportunity to present witnesses and evidence.

Unfortunately, families are not always aware of these rights and how important they are. Instead, they are led like lambs to the slaughter.

And on the chopping block?

Their kids. Your kids.

Kids make mistakes. Everybody knows this. Sometimes kids are, dare I suggest it, not even guilty of that which they have been accused. The best thing…perhaps the only thing…you can do to protect your child if he or she is in this position is to engage the services of an experienced defense attorney. Such an attorney should be experienced in these type of juvenile proceedings.

Bringing in a lawyer not only best protects your child, and you, but it also sends a message to the accusers who await at the hearing. The message is that they will be held to the appropriate standard.

And that standard is not reminiscent of the infamous trials we had throughout this land when we were afraid of witches.

These are, after all, our children.

Our future.

Do you think it might be worth showing them some fairness and, even, compassion?

To view the article upon which this blog is based, please go to http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/a_painful_case_do_parents_need_lawyers_for_school_disciplinary_hearings/

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