Declining to Hear Evidence in Expulsion Hearing Leads to Finding of Insufficient Evidence To Support District’s Secondary Findings

In a recent decision, the California Court of Appeals found that the Sacramento County Board of Education was justified in overturning an expulsion decision because the school district failed to consider certain evidence during an expulsion hearing. (Natomas Unified School District v. Sacramento County Office of Education, (2022) 86 Cal.App.5th 1013).

FACTS:

Student attended a district middle school when he brought a BB gun to campus along with a bag of plastic BBs. Student showed the gun to two friends, which was observed by a parent who notified the school principal. Student, who was 11 years old at the time, explained he had listened to a presentation from a police officer at a career day and brought the BB gun so he could leave school and go directly to a park afterwards to target practice on trees in an attempt to prepare him for a possible career as a police officer. The principal recommended Student’s expulsion.

At the hearing, the district relied on unsworn written statements from witnesses and testimony from the principal and a teacher who walked Student to the office the day of the incident. The teacher testified that Student was “just a little boy,” that bringing the gun to school “was probably a stupid mistake,” and that he should not be expelled.

Student requested that a teacher provide testimony regarding his positive character. However, the district informed Student that the teacher would not testify because “information regarding [Student’s] general character was not probative.” Student was also prevented from producing a family member to testify who would have discussed Student’s character and the gun. The district refused this testimony because the family member was not present when Student had the gun at school. The district also declined to admit general statements from Student’s peers regarding his character. After the hearing, the district recommended a suspended expulsion, also finding that “due to the nature of the act, the presence of the pupil causes a continuing danger to the physical safety of the pupil or others.”

The Sacramento County Board of Education reversed the district’s decision on appeal finding that, among other things, the district prejudicially abused its discretion in finding that Student posed a continuing danger in that there was insufficient evidence to support such a finding. The County Board also found that the district failed to provide a fair hearing by improperly excluding relevant evidence. The district filed a writ to overturn the County Board’s decision.

DISCUSSION:

On appeal, the County Board and Student argued that the district misinterpreted Education Code section 48915 when the district found Student to be a continuing danger based exclusively on evidence of the misconduct itself. The Court reasoned that two findings are required for an expulsion under Section 48915: 1) that the student committed an expellable offense, and 2) that other means of correction are not feasible or have repeatedly failed to bring about proper conduct, and/or due to the nature of the act [or violation], the presence of the pupil causes a continuing danger to the physical safety of the pupil or others. The district argued that based on the specific statutory language, the district was limited to considering only the nature of the student’s misconduct.

The court acknowledged that the nature of a student’s misconduct is a significant consideration in this secondary finding necessary for a student expulsion. However, “determining whether a child truly poses a continuing danger favors consideration of all the relevant facts, including evidence of the child’s character.” (Emphasis added.) Moreover, the court reasoned that in drafting Section 48915, the Legislature:

wanted school districts to evaluate whether the student truly poses a danger based on all the relevant facts, even if, in some instances, it also wanted school districts to ensure that the dangerousness finding had a meaningful connection to ‘the nature of’ the student’s immediate misconduct.

Here, the district prejudicially abused its discretion and failed to provide a fair hearing by refusing to consider evidence of Student’s character when it declined to admit the teacher’s testimony and comments from Student’s peers.

TAKEAWAY:

This case highlights the risks in declining to hear or review evidence offered by a student in an expulsion hearing. The expulsion hearing is the student’s opportunity to present facts and evidence that they feel supports their position. The County Board correctly identified this failure as applicable to their scope of review and overturned the district’s decision. Had the district at least heard this evidence and used its discretion to determine the appropriate weight to give this evidence, it is possible their decision would have survived review.

Moreover, this case serves as a reminder for local educational agencies to consider evidence other than the misconduct itself when making any required “secondary” findings beyond determining whether the student committed an expellable offense. Administrators should carefully review the facts prior to recommending expulsion to ensure that evidence supporting any applicable “secondary” finding exists. The district here appears to have simply checked a box without reviewing these factors in detail during the hearing leading to reversal of the expulsion order.

For further assistance, please contact Michael Tucker at tucker@estattorneys.com.