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Maryland high court retains school suspension as juvenile probation violation

Steve Lash//February 4, 2022

Maryland high court retains school suspension as juvenile probation violation

By Steve Lash

//February 4, 2022

Suspension from school can continue to be regarded as a probation violation for juvenile offenders, Maryland’s top court ruled Thursday in rejecting concerns that it cedes a judicial function to the discretion of school administrators whose vague standards of behavior warranting suspension are often imposed disproportionately on Black students.

In its 6-1 decision, the Court of Appeals said a prohibition on suspension equates to a permissible “obey all house rules” condition of probation that sets sufficiently clear guidelines requiring the youngster to refrain from misconduct.

“Teachers and school administrators … are in a better position than the juvenile court to specify what conduct is required at different points during the school day,” Judge Michele D. Hotten wrote for the majority. “The discretion afforded to school personnel in determining whether particular behavior violated the student code of conduct does not make the no-suspension condition of probation impermissibly vague.”

The court’s consideration of no-suspension as a probation condition drew the attention of the National Center for Youth Law, which submitted a brief stating that suspensions fall more harshly on Black students.

“Black students are overrepresented in suspensions for all types of behaviors and are more likely to be disciplined for less serious and more subjective reasons,” the Oakland, California-based center wrote to the high court. “White students tend to be disciplined for more objectively observable offenses, like smoking or vandalism, (while) Black students tend to be disciplined for behaviors that are more subjective in nature like disrespect, defiance or noncompliance … which do not require exclusion from school or justice system involvement.”

The Court of Appeals, in its decision, said youngsters are protected against discrimination because probation officers and juvenile courts review the suspension to ensure it was neither implicitly nor explicitly based on the students’ race in determining whether probation has been violated.

But Judge Shirley M. Watts, the high court’s sole dissenter, said the fate of a child’s probation should not rest so highly on school administrators’ discretion. Youngsters also should not have the burden of having to prove in juvenile court that race or disability was a factor in their suspension, Watts added.

“Because school suspensions are discretionary decisions by school officials that based on the same conduct may vary from child to child, a no-suspension condition of probation does not provide sufficient notice to a child of the conduct that will result in a violation of probation,” Watts wrote.

“The focus of a juvenile violation of probation proceeding should be to determine whether the juvenile has engaged in conduct that violates probation, not whether the juvenile has been wrongly suspended or the subject of disparate or inappropriate treatment,” Watts added. “Allegations of disparate or unequal treatment are difficult to prove even in protracted civil trials involving extensive discovery, including interrogatories, the production of documents, etc., and often expert testimony, and will be nearly impossible for a juvenile to establish within the confines of a violation of probation hearing.”

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals upheld the no-suspension probation condition that a Frederick County juvenile court judge placed on a teenager after he pleaded no contest to charges of second-degree assault and misdemeanor theft.

The high court issued its decision despite the youngster having completed probation.

The court said the case was not moot because the legitimacy of no-suspension as a probation condition is a “matter of important public concern” and likely to recur but evade judicial review due to the limited duration of juvenile probation.

“The issue of no-suspension conditions of probation … implicates the overlapping duties of government to assist children in becoming responsible and productive members of society, while holding young offenders accountable for offenses committed in order to promote public safety and the protection of the community,” Hotten wrote.

“Public schools are entrusted with the educational and character development of young people, while the juvenile justice system, including probation officers, the state’s attorney, and juvenile courts, is tasked with the rehabilitation of young offenders,” Hotten added. “The case at bar clearly addresses a significant relationship between government and its citizens.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office, which defended no suspension as a condition of juvenile probation, declined to comment Friday on the court’s decision.

Assistant Maryland Public Defender Brian Saccenti, the juvenile’s appellate attorney, did not immediately return messages seeking comment Friday.

The high court rendered its decision in In Re: S.F., No. 10, September Term 2021.

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