“No student deserves to be effectively expelled for bringing a bottle opener to school. There is no disciplinary reason to do so. In the very rare case that students do act out violently and pose a continuing risk to other students, school officials still have the possibility to expel students.”
Our children have a constitutional right to an education to learn and develop into the citizens of tomorrow. That’s why I represented Dathan, a 13-year-old immigrant from Kazakhstan who faced a potential 180-day suspension for bringing a bottle opener to his Brooklyn school.
I met Dathan and his father around a tiny table in a Brooklyn library. I was a first-year law student volunteering with the Suspension Representation Project, an organization that provides free representation to children facing a Superintendent’s Suspension, the most serious disciplinary measure in New York’s public school system.
Someone had reported that Dathan’s bottle opener was a dangerous weapon and the school had searched his backpack. When they found the bottle opener, the principal suspended Dathan and charged him with a Level 5 infraction, the highest level in the Department of Education. Despite New York City banning most suspensions longer than 20 days in 2019, this is punishable by a 180-day suspension, right up there with assault, arson, and bomb possession. The absurd reason for this punishment was that Dathan’s bottle opener had a half-inch fold-out ‘knife.’ The ‘knife’ was designed to cut foil off wine bottles, and was about as sharp as a Fisher-Price toy.
Dathan and his father were devastated. They had come to America for a better life, and now their son was facing a year-long suspension because of a bottle opener. The family explained that Dathan had been doing well in school in spite of the difficulty of moving to a new country. They also explained that Dathan was being bullied by some other boys, probably because he was an immigrant and new to the school.
Around that library table, we made a plan. We would contest the charges at Dathan’s suspension hearing. We could cross examine the principal and expose the absurdity of a nine-month suspension for a bottle opener. This was categorically not a weapons case, and Dathan should never have been removed from school.
At the hearing, the principal testified that she found the bottle opener in Dathan’s backpack and suspended him because she believed it was a weapon. She even brought in a photo of its pitiful, half-inch blade. We were chomping at the bit. “Ms. Principal, isn’t that just a bottle opener? And yet you’re calling it a weapon?”
Before she could answer, the hearing officer cut her off. He acknowledged this was a bottle opener, but explained that he had a “strict liability” policy towards weapons. In other words, it didn’t matter that this was clearly not a weapon and that Dathan couldn’t use it as a weapon. What mattered is that the principal thought it was a weapon, and even the hearing officer couldn’t dismiss the charges. We were crushed. The suspension was officially upheld.
Mercifully, it was only upheld for two weeks and not the full 180 days. Still, Dathan spent those two weeks stuck in an “alternative learning center,” a separate school repurposed as kid jail. Instead of developing his English and catching up with his peers, he was stuck twiddling his thumbs in an empty classroom. If the full suspension had been upheld, Dathan would have missed an entire year of school and would have to repeat the seventh grade.
Dathan’s story is, unfortunately, hardly unusual. In Brooklyn, students face the same Level 5 charge for actions as harmless as bringing screwdrivers to class or stealing edibles from their parents. Students are forced to miss weeks and sometimes months of school, completely disrupting their education. Often, school officials won’t even state what actions the student is being punished for, leaving families helpless to protect their children.
The Solutions not Suspensions bill would fix that. The bill requires that schools provide specific charges and concrete evidence before imposing suspensions. The bill also requires schools to consider each student’s prior history and other disciplinary options, such as detention or in-school suspensions, before resorting to a full Superintendent’s Suspension.
Finally, the bill would abolish the punitive 180-day suspensions available under the law. No student deserves to be effectively expelled for bringing a bottle opener to school. There is no disciplinary reason to do so. In the very rare case that students do act out violently and pose a continuing risk to other students, school officials still have the possibility to expel students.
Students like Dathan deserve to be in school. The Solutions not Suspensions Bill will guarantee our children their constitutional right to an education and will provide school officials with the non-punitive tools they need to educate the next generation.
Thomas Hale is a law student with the NYU Suspension Representation Project. If you or a loved one are facing a Superintendent’s Suspension, feel free to reach out to SRP at 212-998-6753 or email@example.com.