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Nonprofit group works to stop wrongful student suspensions

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Renuka Rege, left, a staff attorney at the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, with Dundalk High School student Jewel Agu. (Submitted photo)

Facing a 15-day suspension for bringing a bottle of pepper spray to school that accidentally went off in a locker room last year, student Jewel Agu, then in ninth grade, and her mother, Terryce Elliott, were worried Agu might be forced to leave Dundalk High School.

Instead, Renuka Rege, a staff attorney at the Public Justice Center in Baltimore who helped form the Maryland Suspension Representation Project (MSRP), defended Agu in a meeting with school officials and the suspension was dropped.

“Thank God Ms. Renuka was there, because they were going to send her to another school,” Elliott said. “The end result was she could go back to school the next day. It was a celebration.”

Started in fall 2017, the Maryland Suspension Representation Project helps students and families obtain volunteer legal representation to halt what they believe are wrongful suspensions or expulsions. Rege said students are primarily from public schools.

Roughly a dozen lawyers have volunteered to join the organization, a partnership whose members come from various groups, including Disability Rights Maryland; the Public Justice Center; the Youth, Education and Justice Clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law; and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

The goal of the MSRP is to represent students in suspension and expulsion cases and to educate them and their families about the rights of students. That includes the right to a meeting with school officials immediately after a disruptive event, where the student can offer his or her account of what happened.

The Maryland Suspension Representation Project does not have an office, but its website provides a phone number for students or family members seeking to get in touch with a lawyer about a suspension case.

The website also provides information about students’ and families’ rights to oppose school suspensions.

Rege and other MSRP lawyers screen callers to learn about each student’s case to determine if the suspension or expulsion was indeed wrongful. If they believe it was, they point students and families to a lawyer.

If a school plans to suspend a student for more than 10 days, a meeting is held in the school district office with the student and his or her family. It is at this stage that MSRP usually gets involved, Rege said.

“We’ll often go to those conferences and basically argue why the behavior didn’t meet the legal standard for … a suspension longer than 10 days or (an) expulsion,” said Rege, who estimated that MSRP has handled between 75 and 80 cases since it started work in 2017.

At the district-level meeting, an administrator explains why the school believes the student’s actions meet the legal requirement for suspension and details evidence, Rege said.

Students often don’t have a lawyer with them at these meetings because they don’t know they can bring one, Rege said. However, she added that some students’ families do retain attorneys and that schools have become used to seeing them.

Elliott said she heard about the Maryland Suspension Representation Project through lawyers she contacted about defending her daughter, but who were too expensive to retain.

At the meeting last year for Agu, Rege defended the teen by pointing to a 2014 change in state law that allows for discretion in assessing penalties for school infractions, a departure from the previous zero-tolerance policy.

Elliott, who said she gave Agu a small bottle of pepper spray as a means of self-defense for her long daily walk to school, said she didn’t realize the spray would be considered a weapon and provide grounds for the school to suspend her daughter.

Elliott added that when school officials were told a lawyer would attend the meeting about Agu’s suspension, “their whole attitude changed.”

“If I was in there by myself, it was like they were sharks,” Elliott said.

Dundalk High School Principal Larissa Santos declined to be interviewed for this article.

Santos referred questions to Brandon Oland, communications specialist for Baltimore County Public Schools, who said district staff “encourages parents and students to be familiar” with students’ rights and responsibilities detailed in the district’s student handbook.

 


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