For students who have been expelled from school, an alternative education is critical to getting them back on track and moving forward to a brighter future.
Statistically, expelled or suspended students often end up on the wrong track, derailed and facing a bleak future filled with uncertainty, false starts, frustration and possibly a life of crime or drugs.
A case in point: a 13-year-old student was expelled by the Hazelwood School District.
At home for six months with no educational options and an unemployed mother who could not afford a private alternative education for him, the seventh grader was in serious jeopardy until Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM) and its Children’s Legal Alliance program stepped in.
Alleging that the Hazelwood School District’s refusal to provide an alternative education violated the student’s right to a free public education (as guaranteed by the Missouri Constitution and citing the district’s statutory obligation under 167.164 RSMo), LSEM filed a lawsuit against Hazelwood.
LSEM further alleged that the refusal to provide an alternative education violated the student’s right to equal protection under the Missouri Constitution. Currently, the state provides an alternative education to children who become involved in the juvenile court system and to children who are certified as adults and incarcerated in Missouri prisons.
Yet the student, who had not been charged with any crime, was not receiving any alternative education. Named as co-defendants in the lawsuit were the State of Missouri, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Missouri State Board of Education.
The lawsuit was subsequently settled. In addition to changing it policy, the district agreed to pay for the student to attend an off-campus alternative education program called ACE. At ACE, the teen-ager is flourishing academically while his mother, who was previously unemployed partly because of her son’s expulsion, is back to work.
While the case was successful, it remains to be seen whether the settlement will put the spotlight back on a recurring problem: the failure of Missouri school districts to provide expelled students or those under long-term suspensions any alternative education.
Contending they have no legal obligations to provide alternative options, many school district leaders and officials refuse it even though districts would receive the same amount of funds from the state as it does for a traditional classroom education.
This denial of education is unfortunate.
Underlying research clearly demonstrates that offering alternative education to suspended or expelled pupils benefits them and society as a whole. Without an alternative, bad outcomes can occur.
Without day care or other arrangement options, the parent is often forced to quit his or her job to stay at home with the child. If left alone or not adequately supervised, the child could become susceptible to gang or other delinquent or criminal activity. And the child will not graduate from high school, all but eliminating post-secondary opportunities.
The positives of providing alternative education include a chance to return to high school and graduate while reducing delinquency and school failure. It’s also more cost-effective to society to educate these teens or children rather than kicking them to the curb, where welfare and prison costs are steep and crime and drugs reside.
Recently, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education published guidance in response to reports that children of color and children with disabilities are disproportionately suspended or expelled from school. That guidance concluded that children be removed from school only as a last resort, and if removed, they should be given an alternative education and returned to the regular education classroom as soon as possible.
It’s too early to tell whether other school districts will take note of LSEM’s lawsuit and, like Hazelwood, change its policy of refusing alternative education to all expelled students.
Now is the time for all Missouri education leaders and stakeholders to reconsider this outdated and ineffective approach that ultimately harms students and society long after the final bell has rung.