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Settlement Reached in Colorado Case Over Students' Constitutional Rights

Ever since I wrote a story last year on a federal lawsuit on whether a Colorado charter school violated students' constitutional rights, people have emailed me to ask: What happened to the students? Did a court ever rule on the situation?

It's certainly not often that reporters get to return to stories they covered and this is a nice exception. Last October, the students, parents, and administrators of Victory Preparatory Academy reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount of money. 

Here's a short background for those of you new to the unusual. In 2017, students at VPA, a highly ranked charter school in Commerce City, Colo., had held a brief silent protest to draw attention to what they felt was an overly strict, punitive culture at the school. The school's administraton reacted severely: It made the entire student body go home for the remainder of the day, and then compelled some students' parents to withdraw them from the charter school. The parents and students said this was a violation of the students' First Amendment rights, as well as their due-process rights under the U.S. Constitution. 

I used this micro-example as a starting point to explore the much broader idea of whether schools have a duty to model good civic practices, as well as to teach them. It's part of our ongoing investigation into the way U.S. schools teach civics, and how they might improve it.

To be clear, I highlighted this example because it seemed so extreme. VPA administrators' conduct is probably not representative of charter schools or U.S. schools as a whole. But some of the themes—a lack of student voice, a strict dress code and code of conduct, and so on—do echo in national debates over schooling, especially over how discipline policies tend to impact students of color more than their peers. 

These are, of course, extremely complicated issues. Schools are not democracies, after all—there have to be rules to ensure order and an opportunity to learn. And students' constitutional rights do look different in schools. But at what point does the line get crossed? 

In a crucial moment last August, federal district court judge Raymond P. Moore ruled against a motion from the school to dismiss the case. In his ruling, he found most of the students' and parents' claims plausible, including the notion that the school deprived students of their due process.

"Defendents cite no authority for the proposition that school officials may summarily suspend an entire student body of approximately 120 students in the manner alleged here. It is inconceivable that these students had an opportunity to present their side of the story in the brief period between when they were called back to the gym and when Defendant Jajdelslki [VPA's principal] announced their collective suspension," he noted.

On only one claim did he side with the defendants, saying that the 66-page student handbook was not facially unconstitutional. (This is generally a high bar to meet because one must show there are no circumstances whatsoever that the policy being challenged could be valid.) 

Reaching a Settlement

It's not entirely clear what prompted the two parties to reach a settlement. But the fact that the judge did not throw the lawsuit out probably had something to do with it. Litigation is lengthy and costly, and this one had the added specter of potentially being certified as a class action on behalf of all the students attending VPA. (Principal Ron Jajdelski did not immediately return a request for comment.)

Because this case is now settled, we don't know how the court might have ruled if, via discovery, it had been able to see all the evidence. But, said Iris Halpern, one of the attorneys representing the students, the order clearly embraced the importance of preserving students' rights.

"I think what made us happy is that all of these rights were very clearly encapsulated. He wrote a very clear decision. He was not narrowly looking at these issues so they don't apply elsewhere," Halpern said. "It reinforced students' and parents' rights to be critical of schools, which are huge institutions—and extremely important institutions in these communities and in parents' and students' lives." 

That's especially important given that the school serves a mostly Latino population. 

VPA's troubles may not be over. Apparently as a result of the attention brought by the lawsuit (especially, at an evidentiary hearing), the school's authorizer, the Colorado Charter School Institute, last summer sent a letter notifying it of a breach in its charter contract. Its concern? The school's policy of counting expulsions as "voluntary withdrawals," which the authorizer say ran counter to Colorado rules. Elsewhere, the CCSI also said that the student handbook needed to be revised for calling for suspensions and explusions for a variety of grounds "not authorized in state law."

The handbook "appears to authorize suspension for such matters as failing to turn in homework, truancy/tardiness, and having food/beverages outside of the cafeteria," it noted. 

It is not yet clear how VPA responded, but in any case, a failure to correct these issues could lead to additional sanctions or ultimately a revocation of the school's charter.

Image: Emilio Flores and his parents were among the individuals that sued a Colorado charter school for violating free-speech and due process rights. The case recently settled.

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