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Former students sue Pike Schools

Two former Goshen High School athletes are suing the Pike County Schools over suspensions issued during their senior year.

The students, RaQuan Martin and Dakari Pelton, were suspended after a November 2019, incident in which school officials said the pair were smoking marijuana in a parked car on campus.

“It’s been a very unjust situation,” said Shantarra Pelton, mother of Dakari Pelton.

The suits filed in October in Juvenile Court with the assistance of the Southern Poverty Law Center, claim that the school system infringed on the students’ rights in the proceedings that resulted in their suspension from Goshen High School and by issuing “an arbitrary and capricious decision that was unsupported by evidence, failing to comply with its own adopted polity, and disciplining (the students) in violation of the requisites of constitutional due process.”

The initial incident took place Nov. 22, 2019, when the Goshen High School principal questioned the students in connection with alleged rumors that a group of students had “smoked” that same day in the parking lot at the school, according to the lawsuits.

Shantarra Pelton said she received a phone call that day from the school. “He told us our children had smoked on campus,” she said. “He told me the incident was on camera but he wouldn’t show us the video.”

A total of four students were involved in the incident, she said. “Another student told him she wanted to show them something in her car … they had skipped PE, which is nothing that normally didn’t do.”

According to the lawsuit, Dakari “immediately returned to school when the other student showed him what appeared to be drug paraphernalia.” RaQuan said he did the same.

Both RaQuan, then 17,  and Dakari, then 18, were suspended that day for violating Rule 4.5 of the Code of Conduct.  The students were suspended for 12 days before a disciplinary hearing was held.

Both Shantarra Pelton and Tasha Martin, RaQuan’s mother, said their children took voluntary over-the-counter drug tests immediately following the suspension. Both tests showed neither student had used marijuana or any other tested substance for 30 days prior.

The students were given an administrative hearing on Dec. 10, 2019, with the Disciplinary Council comprised of school administrators.

Dakari’s hearing lasted 16 minutes, during which his mother said he repeated the same information he had told the principal during his initial interview and was not given the opportunity to see the video footage or cross-examine the other persons whose testimony the council had considered, according to the suit.

During RaQuan’s hearing, he was told “that were ‘drugs involved one way or another,’ (and that he) was ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time.’”

Both RaQuan and Dakari were excluded from Goshen High School through the end of the 2019-2020 year and referred to the alternative school program.

The students and their parents appealed the decision on Jan. 13, 2020, to the Pike County Schools Board of Education. Both students apologized for skipping class and said they had not possessed or used marijuana. They both presented negative drug tests results to the board. According to the suits, the school board and superintendent met with the disciplinary council members, without the students, and upheld the decision of the disciplinary council. The board did agree to reconsider the appeal if the students submitted additional urine and hair follicle drug testing and completed drug education courses.

The students were readmitted to Goshen High School on Feb. 21, 2020, nearly three months after the initial suspension.

Both RaQuan and Dakari said the period of exclusion from the high school and time in alternative school were emotionally trying and difficult.

“It was hard,” Dakari said. “All I liked was basketball, and I couldn’t even do that … right now I’m better, I’m dealing with it.”

His mother said the family sought counseling to help Dakari deal with the situation, which often resulted in her son breaking down at the alternative school in tears and a decline in his academic performance. “It just mentally did something to him … I can’t even describe to you what it was like.”

Dakari had been a promising basketball player who hoped to attend college on a basketball scholarship. Not being able to play his senior year meant the loss of that opportunity. “I work at Walmart right now,” he said.

“That’s still an option,” Shantarra said. “But when they look at his record or reach out to the coach about his senior year …”

RaQuan, who played both football and basketball, was being considered for a football scholarship before the incident. “I wanted to play, especially my senior year,” he said. “It’s probably shattered my dreams now>”

Shantarra said she decided to pursue the lawsuit “not just for him to get another chance, but for other students to have the opportunity. If nothing gets changed or fixed, this is going to affect another child.”

Dr. Mark Bazzell, superintendent of Pike County Schools, said he could not comment about the details of the incident. “Our parents and the community at large expect us to give our best effort when it comes to maintaining safe and orderly learning environments for our students. We will continue with those efforts. We have always and will continue to adjudicate discipline cases in a manner that is both fair and lawful. There are numerous factual inaccuracies in the plaintiff’s press release. However, because this is pending litigation, I cannot comment further.”

Michael J. Tafelski, attorney for the families, said Alabama is the only state in the Southeast that doesn’t have a statute protecting students in disciplinary actions. “There is nothing to say you have the right to cross-examine witnesses, and as a result you’ve got districts making up their own rules as they go,” he said.

“Students across Alabama continue to be excluded from school without regard for their due process rights, leading to unwarranted and unlawful suspensions and expulsions” Tafelski said. “This is particularly troubling for Black students who are three times more likely to be excluded from school for minor and subjective infractions than their white peers. Education is an important aspect of a young person’s life and the decision to exclude them from school should not be taken lightly. And because suspensions and expulsions are ineffective and harmful to both students and school climate, they should always be based in facts and evidence when schools take this action. That is why it is critical that Alabama districts ensure students receive the due process they are entitled under the Constitution, and that the state ensures a fair process for all students by enacting due process protections under state law.”

According to the SPLC, during the 2019-2020 school year, Pike County Schools referred 49 students to a disciplinary hearing. Of those, 48 students were either suspended or expelled, as a result. Black students made up 80 percent of the referrals even though they comprise less than 50 percent of the total student population. On average, Black students make up 77 percent of all students referred for disciplinary hearings in the district.

In this case, he said, the board did not follow its own policies and violated the students’ rights to due process.

The suits seek reversal of the disciplinary decision, correction of academic records to note that the students did not violate the Code of Conduct and an order to have the school district reform their disciplinary policies and practices.

Tafelski said the juvenile court has jurisdiction in this matter because of a state law that allows students and children under the age of 19 to challenge disciplinary decisions in juvenile court.