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.
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.”
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.