I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Getting the Disciplinary Process Right Part II

So as I’ve stated before multiple times in many school board meetings, I think the board needs a better process for ensuring that decisions that come from our delegated hearing officers are not defective.  Under the current protocol, the status quo, we are told we can do nothing to challenge a hearing officer’s written order.  I reject that notion.  Hearing officers are humans, and like judges, hearing officers sometimes make mistakes.  Unlike judges that routinely have their defective decisions overturned by a vibrant and fair appeals process, however, our hearing officers are apparently  beyond reproach;  their decisions, even if defective, MUST only be “accepted”—is what we are told.  

This mindset is garbage.  I reject this logic totally.  I mean, what happens when we get a hearing officer who comes back with an order stipulating the “sky is green!”  Are we to blindly genuflect and accept something just as blatantly wrong as it pertains to student discipline?  I say no way.

Simpletons that refuse to accept the reality of this problem will be dismissive and say things such as “This is the way this process has always been conducted here.” 

The problem with this line of thought is that with no appeals mechanism in place to challenge a hearing officer’s defective order, justice is not served for victims or perpetrators --be they guilty or innocent.

Here is the thing:   I have no problem adopting a hearing officer’s recommended order---even if I disagree—so long as the hearing was conducted appropriately, Board Policy was followed, and there are not blatant legal problems with the order.  I have accepted and have voted for many of these orders throughout my time on the school board.

But when even a Blind Man could see problems with an order---I will NEVER simply vote to accept such a flawed product.

Example 1:  If the hearing officer finds, to the preponderance of the evidence, that a student committed what would be the textbook definition of a battery, yet such a hearing officer fails to 

appropriately categorize this battery as what it is-- a battery------ this is a legal problem that must be challenged. This just happened, by the way.

Example 2:  If Johnny says he did not have the marijuana on his person and yet he was expelled for having marijuana –by all means, yes, let’s have a hearing.  And if the hearing officer determines from the evidence presented in the hearing that Johnny did not have the marijuana and so therefore the penalty is wrong----I’ll always accept that outcome if the hearing was conducted properly.  On the other hand, if the hearing officer finds that Johnny did have the pot, but the hearing officer decides independently to exceed his/her authority and give a lesser sentence than what is mandated in board policy—THAT IS WRONG.  In real life, judges have minimum mandatory sentencing requirements for some offenses, and even if such a judge wants to give a lesser sentence, this is not permitted.  In the school system three years ago, we used to have a penalty with teeth for bringing marijuana on campus---it was a one (1) year minimum removal from school for that infraction.  We actually had a hearing officer blatantly defy that Board Mandate, and even though “Johnny” was found guilty of bringing pot to school, this hearing officer gave a sentence of six months.  That actually happened, it was an abuse of discretion and it was wrong.   I voted against that order as well. (The board, over my objection, has since moved to water down the penalty for contraband possession at school and has removed the one (1) year minimum removal policy for drug infractions)

So what do we do when a hearing officer gets it wrong?  Should we just accept defective orders, shrug our shoulders, grit our teeth, hold our noses and do nothing?  No way, not if we are leaders we won’t.

Here is my solution:  We need to have a mechanism that allows us to act in an appellate capacity for circumstances when our hearing officers make mistakes or when these hearing officers do not follow board policy with fidelity.  Contrary to what some might say or think---It is not about “disagreeing” with decisions we don’t like.  It is all about accepting the reality, the known fact of truth,  that humans make mistakes.  And such errors combined with the potential for abusing discretion to the detriment of some students and not currently having a clear mechanism to correct these situations is problematic.  So why not fix this?  Really, why not?

Only the status quo wins when we shrug our shoulders and fail to act to fix a blatantly defective process.

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