The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Heyne v. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools et al serves as a stern reminder as to the importance of following due process requirements when issuing student discipline.
Factually, Heyne involved a situation wherein a Caucasian high school football player (Heyne) accidentally ran over the foot of an African-American team member (Teammate) with his car, causing Teammate to suffer a sprained ankle. Heyne apologized to his Teammate for the incident, which was clearly an accident. In response, Teammate threatened to kill Heyne. The incident was reported to the high school principal, who did not speak with any witnesses or visit the scene of the incident.
Although the high school’s Student Code of Conduct prohibited threats, the principal did not discipline Teammate. Teammate’s parents, however, threatened to file a lawsuit against the District if discipline was not issued against Heyne. In response, the principal suspended Heyne for 10 days, an action which he admitted was taken to “cover” himself and the school. Notably, the principal had also, prior to the incident, instructed staff to be more lenient in disciplining African-American students because too many African-American students were serving suspensions at the school.
At the time of the due process hearing, school district officials substantially thwarted Heyne’s ability to present evidence to support his challenge of the suspension. Among other acts:
- Heyne’s witness statements were not provided to disciplinary board panelists who reviewed the discipline
- Heyne’s attorney was limited to passing notes and not allowed to present any witnesses
- School district employees were informed that they would lose their jobs if they attended the hearing
The disciplinary hearing board sustained the charge of reckless endangerment against Heyne, along with the 10 day suspension. A subsequent appeal by Heyne was denied.
Heyne filed suit against the school district and several individual defendants, contending that his right to procedural due process and equal protection rights were violated by the 10 day suspension.
Citing Goss v. Lopez, wherein the Supreme Court concluded that students facing suspensions of ten days or fewer have a property interest in educational benefits and a liberty interest in their reputations that qualify them for protection against arbitrary suspensions under the Due Process Clause, the appellate court held that the principal in Heyne was “not an impartial decision-maker” and that Heyne’s lawsuit:
… plausibly suggest[s] that [the principal’s] ability to impartially determine the appropriate discipline in relation to the … incident had been manifestly compromised – by virtue of his knowledge of and expressed concern about student discipline statistics, his instructions to faculty and staff concerning discipline of African-American students, and his reaction to the communications with the parents of [Teammate]. These are the kinds of specific facts, indicating the presence of pre-existing bias, that this Court has recognized could give rise to a valid claim for infringement of the due process right to an impartial decision-maker in the context of student discipline.
The Sixth Circuit, therefore, upheld the denial of the principal’s motion to dismiss premised on the contention that he enjoyed qualified immunity and, thus, was protected from Heyne’s charges.
This case serves to remind educators issuing discipline that the due process requirements for suspensions of ten days or fewer must not be taken lightly.