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Inquiry Into 4th Grader’s Suspension at Palm Harbor Charter School Raises Concerns of Arbitrary Discipline and Due Process

| December 12, 2013

Palm Harbor Academy on Old Kings Road in Palm Coast has an enrollment of 71. (c FlaglerLive)

Palm Harbor Academy on Old Kings Road in Palm Coast has an enrollment of 71. (c FlaglerLive)

The Flagler County school district is investigating the case of a fourth grade girl who was suspended from Palm Harbor Academy, the Palm Coast charter school, for two days in late November without documented due process, and in apparent violation of school policy and safety standards. The district has asked the school a series of questions and requested documentation tracing the handling of the matter, but has not been answered to its satisfaction, according to the school board’s attorney.

The child was suspended even though the student code of conduct Palm Harbor follows does not call for out-of-school suspension of 4th graders except in grave circumstances, as for example when a crime is committed or zero-tolerance policies are violated. Otherwise, the most punishment they may sustain is in-school suspension. Nevertheless, when the child turned up for school on the day she was to be suspended, the school placed her in a van and had her driven back home—without certifying that her mother was at home. Her mother says no one was at home, and the child should never have been driven back without her knowledge.

The child’s mother says the school handled the matter shoddily, rudely and discriminatorily, singling out her child for punishment and endangering her safety by taking her home without her mother’s knowledge.

School officials say the incident that led to the suspension was the latest in a long line of incidents, that the school went out of its way to have contact with the mother to resolve the disciplinary issues before they escalated but did not get the mother’s cooperation, and that on the day of the suspension, the child’s house door was open when she got home, the child told the driver that her mother was home, and that her safety was assured.

Beyond what one side or another says, the case, especially in the absence of a full set of documented evidence that the school district is seeking, reveals potential loopholes in the way charter schools address disciplinary issues as opposed to traditional public schools, which are strictly regulated in those matters. The case also reveals the limits of a parent’s ability to appeal the handling of such a case in a charter school, and the school district’s own limits in policing charter school matters. The school district may inquire about a parent’s complaint, as it is doing in this case, but it cannot overturn a charter school’s decisions in the matter: that’s up to the charter’s own board of directors.

Esther Hamilton, the principal at Palm Harbor Academy, in a portrait posted at the school's website.

Esther Hamilton, the principal at Palm Harbor Academy, in a portrait posted at the school’s website.

Other than exerting administrative pressure to ensure that a charter school is following the rules, the district may only renew or revoke a school’s charter. But getting to the point of revocation is a long and involved process that must result from a school’s grave and continuous failures academically or otherwise. That’s not the case with Palm Harbor. While the school’s academic standing has been tenuous in the last two and a half years, earning an F in 2012 but improving somewhat in 2013, no one is claiming that the school has chronic problems: the district’s inquiry into the November disciplinary matter is the first of its kind that School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin can think of. Still, it was enough to raise the sort of pointed questions from the district, and has led the child’s mother to plan to pull the child and her older sister from the school this month. Palm Harbor had an enrollment of 71 as of late November.

The following account is based on interviews with Gavin, with Keoka Davis, the mother of the two children at Palm Harbor—Sequoia, the fourth grader at the heart of the matter, and a sixth grader who is not involved in the matter—Esther Hamilton, the principal at the school, Gilliard Glover, Palm Harbor’s board president, on the limited documentation Palm Harbor provided the school district, and documents provided by the district itself. That the information is incomplete is the crux of the matter: verbal claims and counter-claims are frequently not backed up by tangible evidence, even though school policy sets out guidelines for what evidence must be gathered in disciplinary matters.

A Disputed Notice of Suspension

On Nov. 20, Hamilton informed Sequoia that “she was not to come to school for two days,” according to a letter Hamilton wrote the school district on Nov. 21, “because she disrespected her teacher and that behavior was unacceptable. She had been warned about this misbehavior numerous times previously.” The disciplinary issue that led to the suspension involved Sequoia’s use of a cell phone in violation of school policy. The phone was confiscated. “Sequoia came to school anyway with a note from her mother stating that I had singled her child out for punishment. Neither she nor her child took responsibility for the misbehavior.”

While Palm Harbor may choose to have its own code of conduct, it does not do so. It follows the school district’s code of conduct. “The Code of Conduct would require the school to complete suspension paperwork, contact the parent, and send a copy of the suspension paperwork to the parent,” Tammy Yorke, the district’s charter school liaison, wrote Hamilton on Nov. 22. “Ms. Davis indicated that these procedures were not followed, and she received no communication in advance in regard to the suspension.”

Hamilton says Davis is lying, that email and a certified letter was sent home about the suspension, and that the note that accompanied Sequoia when she was brought to school the day she was to be suspended shows that Davis knew about the suspension. Davis says the school is lying—that if Sequoia had disciplinary issues, her teacher never told Davis about them—a teacher, Davis says, who has never answered her emails directly, limiting her emails to general notes addressed to all the parents of children in her classroom. The school has not disputed that claim.

Regardless of the disagreement over who is lying, the code of conduct Palm Harbor follows is clear, and it’s just as clear that Palm Harbor did not follow it—or at least it did not provide documents to the district showing that it followed it.

“Disciplinary actions,” according to the code, “include, but are not restricted to, the following: oral reprimand, counseling, parental conferences, denial of privileges, detention, removal from class or school activity (including bus transportation), in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, alternatives to suspension program, or expulsion.”

The code lists 36 examples of acts that may result in discipline, none except one applying to Sequoia—the use of a cell phone. Davis says there is no record of counseling, parental conferences, removal from the classroom or in-school detention prior to her child being suspended.

Appearance of Arbitrariness

“We can’t just suspend a kid from school just because we feel like it,” Gavin, the school district’s attorney, says. “We have to have all of our ducks in a row.” That does not appear to be the case here. “For example when we asked them to provide information related to whether the school followed the code of conduct and if not, why, they did not provide that.”

Rev. Gilliard Glover. (Facebook)

Rev. Gilliard Glover. (Facebook)

Hamilton says Palm Harbor went to great lengths to have conferences with Davis. “She has never been to the school to have a conference about her children even though she’s been asked to several times,” Hamilton said. Davis does not have a car. She lives in Bunnell, works in Ormond Beach, and is driven to work by her manager.

“She’s been asked to come in several times,” Glover said. “She has transportation issues. We offered transportation.” She still would not come in. “She has never met with the school.”

Davis herself disputes the school’s reaching out to her. Even so, there is no record of the school following the gradual disciplinary steps that precede a suspension. And the gravity of the out-of-school suspension appears disproportionate with the issues the school cites. Gavin says the school uses the same electronic system the traditional schools use, where a student’s disciplinary issues are tracked. Not a single disciplinary issue is recorded in that system in Sequoia’s electronic file. Issues may have been recorded in her paper file. If so, Gavin says, those have not been produced.

“All they’ve done is tell me the background of the incident,” Gavin said. “That doesn’t tell me whether you complied with the student code of conduct as to how you suspend a student,” nor does it show “a progressive discipline plan. I don’t have any information that that was followed.”

And that’s before the issue of taking Sequoia back home, without her mother’s knowledge, is raised.

Taking the Child Home

“The driver dropped her off and pulled off without seeing if there was any adults in my home,” Davis wrote Yorke, the charter liaison at the district, the afternoon of Nov. 21. “My neighbor was over there with a guy spraying my home for termites and immediately called my job. I then called the school and spoke with the principal Mrs. Hamilton and she was very snobbish saying she will take care of it. I then called back to receive the driver’s name and was hung up on twice. This is not acceptable and very unprofessional. My daughter is 9 years old and he should [have] made sure my daughter was safe with an adult and he did no such thing.”

The driver provided this account: “Upon approaching the home, Sequoia stated, ‘My mother is home,’ the door was open and unlocked then student then walked into her home and I then left the premises. [There] was no work truck anywhere on the premises. Once she walked into her home she is qualified as received.”

Hamilton, in her account to the district, relied on the driver’s account in her belief that Davis was home, and noted that she called Terminix to check whether there’d been a service call at that home and was told that there hadn’t been. But at no point has Hamilton or the driver denied that they did not certify with Davis that she was home before sending the child back there.

Hamilton’s account to the district, in other words, takes cover behind the attempts to discredit Davis’s truthfulness—about the Terminix service call and also about an alleged call to police that Davis says the Terminix man made to report the unattended child. But regardless it does not address the school’s own failure, undisputed by the school, of establishing with Davis directly that she was home before her child was sent back there. School officials said they knew Davis’s work schedule, and at the time the child was dropped back home Davis would still have been there. But that, too, is conjecture on the school’s part.

When Hamilton was asked by a reporter why Sequoia was not detained at school, as would be the norm, until her mother could be contacted directly so the school was certain that the child would be turned over to proper care when returned home, Hamilton ended the interview.

The District’s Unanswered Questions

To Glover, who concedes that the conversations between Davis and Hamilton “could have gotten heated,” the matter was handled properly and in accordance with the code. “I don’t know what else could have been done from a school perspective,” he said. “We’ve done all we can to accommodate this parent as well as other parents.”

The school district doesn’t think so.

“Due to the serious nature of the circumstances involved in the complaint,” Yorke wrote the principal, “the district requests that Palm Harbor Academy conduct an investigation into the circumstances of the suspension and transporting the child home without parental notice and leaving the child without adult supervision. A follow-up report is due to the district by noon on Monday, December 2, 2013. The report should include the following:

  • Who is conducting the investigation?
  • An explanation of the student discipline incident and action taken by staff.
  • Whether the school followed the District Code of Conduct and if not, why?
  • What school-based procedures may have been followed in lieu of the FCSB Student Code of Conduct?
  • A copy of any school based discipline procedures that may vary from the FCSB Student Code of Conduct. If clear school procedures are not in place, they should be developed and implemented expeditiously.
  • Whether or not disciplinary action will be taken in regard to staff.”

The district is still waiting for answers to most of these questions.

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14 Responses for “Inquiry Into 4th Grader’s Suspension at Palm Harbor Charter School Raises Concerns of Arbitrary Discipline and Due Process”

  1. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    I think the title is misleading, the incident raises questions as to the Schools documentation of discipline, but it appears quite obvious that there is a child who has consistently been disruptive, who’s mother apparently refuses to take responsibility for, and the school finally said enough is enough. It was certainly a mistake not to verify the mother was home upon dropping the child off, but let’s not automatically accept the mother’s side of the story. She apparently lied about the termix guy being there and him calling the police, so I’m not ready to just accept her claim that she wasn’t home at the time.

    • Nancy N. says:

      “it appears quite obvious that there is a child who has consistently been disruptive”

      And you know this exactly how? Were you there? Because as is clearly stated in the article, there is no paper trail supporting this. The only evidence of this is the word of school staff who are in CYA mode now trying to justify their way out of the mess they are in.

      Frankly, the fact that the school felt it necessary to SUSPEND a child for having a cell phone is ridiculous and a symptom of the fact that they either completely don’t care about the education of the children, are unable to exercise basic control over their classrooms, or both. You take the cell phone away until the end of day. End of problem.

      Somebody obviously lost their temper here and over-reacted and now are trying to cover their butt, is what it looks like to me, by trying to make it look like their reaction was appropriate.

  2. FB citizen says:

    go ahead parents…keep on sending your kids to these charter schools that ARE NOT held to the same standards the other schools are…keep lying to yourself about how much better it is there…

    • mother of son who attends Palm Harbor says:

      I happen to send my son to this school. He has sensory issues and behavor issues mentioned in this acticle. He was promplty kicked out of OLD KINGS without any attempt to assist me. This school has taken my son in, taught him to read and write ( 3 years of preschool couldnt get him to learn his Alphabet). I personallyl can attest that Ms Hamilition is a good, fair principal. She expects children to behave and considers all children as GOOD CHILDREN. THere are parents who dont care and think their children are angels. The school calls me if there is a problem and I promptly show up. It has nipped the behavior problem in the bud and I am thankful for a school that cares and enforces good character. When you unite with the school, your child sees that they can’t continue to be disrespectful. Thats what is wrong with society today.. kids do what they want and we have the adacity to be appalled when someone says enough is enough. I dont agree with dropping the child off but the child should not lie either. The parent needs to take responsiblity for her child. bottom line.

  3. Dave says:

    It’s quiet obvious this F rated school is only in it for the money and can care less about the kid’s or their safety, I can only hope the rest of parents will remove their kids from this so called school that according to state guidelines have no idea how to educate the children , Do the right thing Mr Glover and close down that place you call a school so the kids will have chance in life, Your hurting them doesn’t that matter to you or your staff ? can you even safely transport the children being as the bus you were leasing was a stolen bus? I would like to think that you have secured a safe and legal means of transportation for these few kids that you still have there,Please have a heart and close your doors while some of these kids educations can still be saved. Dave

  4. tom jack says:

    The crux of the problem is the parents allowing a 4th grade student to have a cell phone. This is just ridiculous. Who does a 4th grade student need to contact while in class? Apparently it wasn’t either one of her parents so who else would she be calling? I blame the parents for allowing their child to have a cell phone, and the charter school for not requiring all cell phones to be turned in at the beginning of the day, then returned at the end. This whole episode could have been avoided with a little common sense.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This child needs an advocate who is more concerned with her welfare and future than they are with their own pride, reputation or self-interest. This mother may be overwhelmed and the school personnel may feel frustrated and on the defensive but there is an at-risk child here and that fact needs to take priority over everything else.

  6. Nancy N. says:

    Asking Palm Harbor to investigate this is like a cop asking his main suspect to investigate the crime for him.

  7. Leann says:

    I took a tour of this school- the teachers spoke like thugs and right in the middle of the tour one of them scream SHUT UP to all of the children who were eating lunch in the cafeteria and enjoying their lunch break. My husband said look at the fear in the kid’s eyes when she yelled that. We promptly left and wouldn’t send our dog to this school.

    • Palm Harbor Supporter says:

      I have been to this school on a number of occasions and have spoken to several teachers.. No one has sounded like a “thug”. The children are supposed to keep the noice level down. Its not fear, its respect. There is no reason for everyone to be so loud and to not have control of the children. I am happy you have found the school that fits your needs. I happen to like the school and the way they interact with my child. I have seen a dramatic improvement in his grades and his behavior at school.

  8. Mother of a student that is in the girl's class says:

    Please note that people comment on what they read. It’s sad to say that the full story related to the suspension has not been disclosed. I know what happened because my child and the rest of the class was present when the situation took place and it is not the first time a situation has happened with this child. I have two children in this school and all I can say is that I feel proud of how they have improved in school.I can say that all teachers and faculty know them by name and I can assure you that its the same with the rest of the students. I have been contacted by both of their teachers for meetings via e-mail and via letters sent home with them. I do believe driving the girl home was out of line, but the school has had enough. I do not blame them.

  9. w.ryan says:

    We don’t know for sure the full story. But I find it ironic that this school system has done so poorly for non-white children in its history but they talk about following procedures. I do agree that procedures are put in place to make sure abuses and misdeeds aren’t committed, I believe though that these procedures simply mask systematic abuses and is a shield to mask against lawsuits. It makes correct what should be considered abuses. The staff, according to the story dropped the ball but lets face it, It’s not like Flagler Schools hasn’t done so in the past. How many Baker acts or other incidents happened without proper procedure being followed in the last 5 or 6 years? I recall the one at Buddy Taylor. What a doozie. More unfortunate it happened to a young child of color which substantiates Th SPLG law suit. How long did Flagler Schools go without scrutiny regarding uneven rates of punishments? Now they are putting the screws to this charter school? It seems to me that Palm Harbor Academy isn’t the only one that has it’s problems if at all. Stone throwing should be kept to a minimum to avoid the shards of glass on both houses. Work in concert to fix the problems!

    • raven says:

      well i know the family personally and i know for a fact that mom wasn’t home and truth be told the way the world is today would you want someone to drop your child off without contacting anyone..its wrong and this is a very close family and they have a great mom, and this is just wrong

  10. keoka davis says:

    this school has the lowest of lowest personal and respect for their students and parents

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