Professor Isabel Raskin Writes a New Chapter in School Discipline
Professor Isabel Raskin
As a young lawyer working at a nonprofit that represented children's rights on a wide range of issues, Isabel Raskin liked to see her role as that of an intermediary—a facilitator who could step into a tense, contentious situation and reach a happy compromise without the threat of going to court.
Then she got a call from a mother whose seventh grader got caught at school with a couple of prescription Tylenol pills. Because they were prescription pills, the Tylenol was considered a controlled substance, and the girl had been suspended indefinitely. The mother told Raskin that it had been seven weeks and the school still wouldn't let the girl return. The girl had been home, moping, doing nothing—the school district had no program for suspended or expelled kids to keep up on their schoolwork— and she was growing depressed. Her mother was worried. Could Raskin help?
Raskin called the school district and asked for a meeting to appeal the suspension. The superintendent seemed nice when Raskin and the mother and daughter met with him a few days later. The mother and daughter acknowledged it was a stupid mistake, apologized over and over, and promised that nothing like this would ever happen again. The superintendent heard them out. He seemed conciliatory, thanked them for coming in, and promised a prompt decision on the girl's to return to school. The meeting ended amicably.
The next day the mother received a note from the superintendent. The girl had been expelled permanently, with no right to return to that school.
"That taught me we had to treat these cases as lawyers," Raskin says today. "We couldn't just go in and have nice meetings. The parents and the kids had to lawyer up. The penalties were disproportionate to the offenses, and we couldn't depend on the schools to do the right thing."
Today Isabel Raskin is director of the Education Advocacy Clinic at Suffolk Law, where she and her students take on a range of cases on behalf of children: from suspensions and expulsions to disputes concerning special education, residency, and more. They appear before school hearings and the state Bureau of Special Education Appeals and occasionally in court, sometimes after being appointed a special education surrogate parent. "It's a good way for students to learn the skills of the law," Raskin says. "It's hands-on, practical work while learning both the theory and the practice of the law. And, as in all clinical programs, the skills they learn translate to different areas of law."
Beyond working within existing laws and regulations, she and her students sometimes attempt to influence public policy on education. They were key players behind the enactment of Chapter 222 of the Acts of 2012, a new law that brings more due process to expulsion procedures and requires school districts to make provisions to educate students who are suspended or expelled for 10 days or longer. The result of years of efforts by legislators, school officials, parents, and lawyers—including Suffolk Law professors, students, and alumni—Chapter 222 requires Massachusetts schools to keep better records and make regular reports on suspended and expelled students, detailing why, when, and for how long students are asked to leave school. Passed by the legislature and signed by the governor over the summer, Chapter 222 goes into effect in 2014—a delay that aims to soothe school administrators' concerns about the time and money it will take to implement the new law.
She supervises eight students at a time, in class and on cases. "I like teaching, but I'm not one of those people who's a natural at it," she says. "I need to be overly prepared." She thinks it's important, particularly in clinical programs, for law professors to show that lawyers don't need to know all the answers themselves. "But I need to know where to go and who to ask for the answers," she says. "I need to know what I don't know. I think those are important things to share with students." She also emphasizes flexibility: "There are lots of creative ways to think. There's not necessarily one right answer or one right course of action."
Besides her work at the school, Raskin has also helped Suffolk Law play a role in the decades-long public policy debate over school discipline. She offers some background:
In Massachusetts, there is no federal or state constitutional right to an education; it is considered a privilege. Everyone is entitled to an education, but it can be taken away for misbehavior. Historically, only school committees had the power to expel students. But the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 gave individual principals the authority to exclude students for conduct dangerous to other students or staff—and each school district, school, and principal can subjectively decide how to define "dangerous." Students can also be expelled if they are found delinquent or accused by police of a felony, whether related to school or not. Since theft over $250 is a felony in Massachusetts, that means a kid who steals an iPod over the summer can be expelled—permanently.
In 1992–1993, before schools and principals were given more authority to suspend and expel, there were fewer than 1,000 expulsions of 10 days or more statewide. Within a decade, the number of lengthy expulsions had doubled. By 2007–2008, it had more than quadrupled, to over 4,000 a year. In nearly 90 percent of those expulsions, Raskin says, the schools did not provide any alternative education. Many school districts didn't arrange a tutor or online classes or even pass along homework assignments.
According to the latest statistics, more than 60,000 school suspensions and expulsions are reported each year by Massachusetts school districts. More than halfof these reported exclusions, according to the legislature's Joint Committee on Education, are for "unassigned offenses"—offenses that did not involve drugs, violence, weapons, or criminal activity. Many of those unassigned offenses include swearing, talking back to a teacher, and truancy. Yet two-thirds of these unassigned offenses, the committee says, result in out-of-school suspensions, totaling 57,000 lost days of school for students.
Raskin says zero-tolerance rules have made things worse in recent years. She cites the case of a kid who went camping with the Boy Scouts over the weekend, and forgot to take his pocketknife out of his backpack before he went to school on Monday. School officials believed it was an innocent oversight and said they hated to do it, but nonetheless expelled the boy under the district's zero-tolerance policy.
"There are a lot of disparities in expulsion policies," Raskin says. "People think only bad kids get expelled. Some kids are kicked out for being a nuisance, for misbehavior. They're no threat to the school." She cites a recent example: two girls were squabbling in the hallway, a teacher stuck an arm between them, and one of the girls pushed the teacher's arm away. That girl was expelled. Another kid damaged four school fire alarms. Since the alarms were valued at $75 each, he was over the threshold for a felony. He was expelled. Another kid was expelled permanently for being in possession of one marijuana seed—one seed. "I'm hearing from all these middle-class parents who are incredulous that their kids are expelled and sitting at home for seven weeks before they can go back," Raskin says.
Abby Friedlander JD'11
She notes that under the existing, pre-Chapter 222 system, any child of any age can be expelled. No due process is required; schools and principals can offer hearings and appeals, but they don't have to—and many don't. Furthermore, Raskin says that when a student is suspended or expelled, the school district has no obligation to offer any sort of alternative education while the kid is at home. It might take days or weeks to get a student back into school, but in that time the student falls farther behind—and is more likely to drop out, according to studies. Studies also show that white students are most likely to be suspended for smoking, vandalism, or leaving campus, while minority students and special education students are more likely to be suspended for subjective offenses such as being disrespectful or threatening. "A lot of that is just lack of cultural competence," Raskin says.
In recent years she has become a leading voice for change, calling for uniform and fair rules for expelling students, an organized system of appeals, and alternative education programs for kids who are kicked out of school for 10 days or more. She testified before the legislature, wrote articles, spoke at conferences, and served on the reform-minded task force that became the driving force behind Chapter 222. She also educated and inspired Suffolk Law students to help work both for individual students and to reform the existing system.
Abby Friedlander, a 2011 Suffolk Law graduate, was one of those students in Raskin's Education Advocacy Clinic. "I advocated for multiple middle- and high-school-age students in special education and school discipline proceedings," she says. "I also gained the experience of representing one student in an expulsion hearing as well as an appeal." In each case, she not only advocated for the individual student but tried to educate school administrators about the effects of indefinite expulsion. She also rallied Suffolk Law classmates to appear at the State House to support the legislation that became Chapter 222.
Rep. Alice Peisch JD'79
Chapter 222 does not do everything that Raskin and other activists wanted, but it does require school districts to set consistent district-wide rules for expulsions, establish due process through timely hearings and appeals, and offer alternative education opportunities for students who are expelled. "The final bill strikes an appropriate balance between school safety and educational opportunity for all students, and will provide for more consistent, thoughtful approaches to school discipline statewide," says Representative Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley), House Chair of the Joint Committee on Education and herself a 1979 Suffolk Law graduate. "The bill supports the fundamental goal of ensuring that all students have access to education and an equal opportunity to learn."
After the bill passed last summer, Isabel Raskin, Abby Friedlander, and Alice Peisch were among the Suffolk Law graduates—along with many others—who celebrated. They wish some parts of the law were stronger. For example, they'd like to see more stringent standards for deciding when students can be dismissed and clearer rules for alternative education programs, and that the law would go into effect sooner. "It's not the whole enchilada," Raskin says, "but it will mean that kids who are excluded from school are going to get some educational services."
And then she went back to work.
--Written by Tim Harper
Excerpted from the Winter 2013 Suffolk Law Alumni Magazine
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