It has been almost 20 years since I first represented a student in a school expulsion case. Since then, I have seen that the way we handle discipline in our Bay Area counties sends a powerful message to our young people.
For the students I help who are expelled after a hearing, they often feel better about the situation once they've at least had a fair opportunity to share their side of the story.
Unfortunately, because of a loophole in current law, the students who actually win their expulsion hearings can still lose. In fact, they may end up losing far more than the students who are expelled.
Under California law, a student who proves that she did not do what she was accused of can be sent to the very school that she would have been sent to if she had been expelled. (Under state law, expelled students still retain the right to an education and are assigned to alternative schools.)
Even worse, the student who wins is denied the rights that all expelled students receive, including the right to an individualized rehabilitation plan and a timely opportunity to show she is doing better and to return to her original school.
Imagine if your child at school had been accused of something that she did not do, but after proving her innocence, the school system said she had to leave her current school and that there was little process or opportunity for ever returning. What would you say?
Every student who I have worked with has said it plainly: "That isn't fair." When students are involuntarily transferred after winning an expulsion hearing, they lose their friends, teachers and school stability.
They lose something else, too. Students lose their entire faith in the system -- a system that turns your life upside down even after the hearing that was supposed to protect you actually proves your innocence.
When this happens, our students learn a terrible lesson: they learn that the system is fundamentally unjust. And that very damaging lesson, along with their loss of academic stability, makes it that much harder for them to engage in school and be successful in the future.
There is very little more important to a teenager than whether something is fair. If a young person does not think a system, such as their school system, is fair, they are very likely to become disengaged and more likely to become another dropout statistic.
Pending state legislation, SB 744, would change this part of the law so that students who win their expulsion hearings cannot be involuntarily transferred away from their school.
This legislation would help ensure that only the students who truly need to be at alternative schools are there, ensuring greater success for the schools and the appropriately-enrolled students themselves.
It will also protect the rights of all families, even those who may have less education or ability to advocate for their children. Finally, it will create a fairer process, one that our students and families can have faith in.
Abigail Trillin is executive director of Legal Services for Children in San Francisco, which represents Bay Area children and youth in education, guardianship, foster care and immigration.