Not much changed for the Davis sisters when the coronavirus pandemic shut down Michigan schools in March. The high school seniors had been expelled from their Detroit charter school months earlier, and they were already at home.
This fall, though, they’re back at Cornerstone Health and Technology High School — albeit virtually — after a judge found in August that the school ignored a state requirement that officials weigh all available options before kicking students out.
“It was just unfair,” said Latanya Davis, the girls’ mother, who sued the school over the expulsion. “That was their third year going to the school and they never really had issues.”
Advocates hope that the Davis case could give teeth to a 2017 school discipline reform law that they say schools too often ignore. The lawsuit is the first to successfully challenge a school over a key provision of the law, which requires schools to consider seven factors — including the student’s age, disciplinary history, disability, and whether a lesser consequence would be effective — before suspending or expelling a student.
With hundreds of thousands of Michigan students learning online, discipline issues are getting less attention during the pandemic, but they haven’t disappeared, said Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that represents students in disciplinary hearings.
Once schools return to in-person instruction, “our hope is that this lawsuit will get school districts… to be more considerate of the seven factors,” she said. “We really shouldn’t remove kids [from school] for a long time. It’s not good for the kids, and it’s not good for the school.”
With an appeal pending, it’s not yet clear what precedent, if any, the case sets, said Charles Hobbs, legal director of Street Democracy, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income and vulnerable people, including students. A trial seems unlikely after a judge on the 3rd Circuit Court in Wayne County issued a preliminary judgment in the students’ favor, indicating that they likely have the evidence on their side.
Cornerstone maintains that it didn’t break the law and is still fighting the case, but the parties are scheduled to discuss a settlement.
Still, school boards across the state will likely take notice of the case, Hobbs said, especially if Hubbard orders Cornerstone to pay the Davis family’s legal fees.
“If they win [attorney’s fees], it’s going to increase the number of students who are enforcing their rights,” said Hobbs, who has been monitoring the case. “Most students can’t afford an attorney.”
Advocacy organizations aren’t relying solely on a favorable ruling in the Davis case to strengthen discipline laws in Michigan. The Student Advocacy Center and the Michigan ACLU are backing bills that would give students additional rights in disciplinary hearings.
The bills, which will be proposed by Sen. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat, would require schools to inform families about accusations against their students before a disciplinary hearing. The prospects of the bill are unclear given that it lacks Republican co-sponsors and the GOP maintains control of the state legislature. However, the 2017 school discipline reforms were passed by a Republican-dominated legislature.
The Davis sisters are both high school seniors, though they were born one year apart. They were expelled in December after fighting with a security guard. They had been waiting for a ride when an argument broke out between them and the guard, a contractor who was not employed by the school. Video shows that the guard struck one of the sisters in the face. The sisters pushed the guard to the ground and beat her. An ambulance was called for the guard, but she refused to get in.
In Michigan, schools can’t expel or suspend students without considering seven factors: the student’s age, disciplinary history, disability, the seriousness of their behavior, whether the student poses a safety risk to others, whether restorative practices have been used to address the behavior, and whether lesser interventions would adequately address the students’ behavior.
Anthony Adams, attorney for the Davis family, pointed out that the sisters had maintained fair grades. During the hearing, the principal said that while both sisters had clashed with school staff early in their high school careers, their behavior had improved. Neither had been previously suspended.
“Had they considered those seven factors and all of the info that was available, they would probably have reached a different conclusion,” such as an in-school suspension, Adams said.
In a statement, Cornerstone’s lawyer said he could not comment on individual disciplinary matters or on the ongoing lawsuit. However, he said that school staff have been trained “multiple times on the seven factors and restorative practices.”
“The school recognizes that prior to issuing any long-term suspension or expulsion, students must be afforded due process and the seven factors, including restorative practices,” said John Kava, general counsel for the network.
Controversy about the discipline reforms hinges on a requirement that schools consider the seven factors. Advocates contend that schools are skirting the law by simply checking off the factors without substantially changing how they mete out discipline.
In this case, though, a judge found that Cornerstone did not create a checklist.
A lawyer for the school argued during an August hearing that the Cornerstone school board discussed the seven factors. An audio recording of the meeting obtained by Chalkbeat indicates that the board did discuss some of the factors, including the students’ age and disciplinary history. But other factors weren’t mentioned, such as whether restorative practices could be used to address the behavior.
A school staff member said during the meeting that he was planning to put a record in the sisters’ file indicating that the board had considered the seven factors.
If that document was included, it wasn’t signed, said Judge Susan Hubbard of the Wayne County Circuit Court. She also noted that Cornerstone couldn’t provide a signed document showing that Latanya Davis understood her rights as a parent during the expulsion hearing.
“There was a process to be followed, and it doesn’t appear as though it was. That’s pretty much the bottom line,” she said.
Mike Dixon, board president at Cornerstone Health and Technology High School, did not return a request for comment.
After the conflict, police arrested the Davis sisters and took them to a juvenile detention center. Latanya Davis, their mother, says she spent so much time ferrying them to court appointments that she lost her job doing quality control for a manufacturing company. One of the sisters has assault charges pending against her in juvenile court; charges against the other sister were dropped, Davis said.
Davis said her daughters felt betrayed by their school for expelling them and humiliated by their arrests, but noted that they haven’t given up on dreams of going to college.
“They’re eager to work and further their ambitions,” she said. “I talk to them every day about it.”
Editor’s note: Nov 14, 2020: This story was updated to clarify Charles Hobbs’ comments about the potential precedent created by the Davis case.