PANAMA CITY — Although her son has garnered more than 50 disciplinary referrals as a student for Bay District Schools, Rebecca Newell says she does not believe it was fair or right for him to be expelled.
On Thursday, Newell and the Student Advocacy Center, which is based in Bay County, hosted a meeting with different local media outlets at her home in Panama City to announce that she plans to sue the district on behalf of her son, appeal his expulsion and lodge a civil rights complaint.
The event was scheduled to be a public press conference held outside and across the street from the Nelson Building — the district's main office — but its time and venue were changed because of rain.
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"Being a single parent of three kids (who works) overtime, I was at a loss on how to manage his behavior at school," Newell said of her son, a 15-year-old freshman. "A group of board members decided my son's future in public education based off behavioral referrals that lack the evaluations that he needed.
"School administration should be looking into more behavioral evaluations and cover all avenues before expulsion," she added. "I'm appealing the expulsion verdict and suing Bay District for not identifying and evaluating my son and providing him with the services that he needed — something they are supposed to do by law."
Bay District School officials were unable to dispute Newell's claims because she refused to sign a release — based on advice from her attorney — that allowed them to comment on her son's school records.
In an emailed statement, Sharon Michalik, spokeswoman for the district, wrote that the district "is committed to following all state laws, procedures and policies when it comes to disciplinary infractions and consequences."
Noting that student safety is the district's number one priority, Michalik also said "our parents and guardians expect us to do all we can to ensure our schools are safe places for teaching and learning and we will continue to do that."
"As we have said before, 99% of our students follow the rules and behave appropriately at school," she wrote. "Unfortunately, the behavior of a few students is what draws the media's attention and that's a shame because those few students do not represent the vast majority of children in our community."
Newell said her son's expulsion was sparked by a brawl in September at Rutherford High School that he and many other students were involved in. She said her son warned multiple school officials prior to the incident that some students might try to incite violence.
His expulsion hearing was then held in November, where Newell expressed to members of the Bay District School Board that she believes expulsion was too harsh since he was never offered an alternative education opportunity, such as attending Rosenwald High School.
She also said it did not seem right for his involvement in the brawl to be grouped together with his past referrals.
Four out of five school board members agreed he should not be expelled and attend an alternative high school, but Bay Superintendent Bill Husfelt, who did not attend the hearing, declined their recommendation, Newell said.
"I'm involved ... as much as I can be for as much as I work," she said. "At what point does the school step in. They love to say 'it starts with the parents.' Well I've been involved. I've been disciplining and working with my kids at home throughout their lives. At what point does the school step in and help. I can't be there 24/7."
According to Gregory Dossie, founder and director of the Student Advocacy Center, the September brawl occurred the day the student returned from being suspended — his second suspension of the school year.
Dossie, who acted as the student's representative during the expulsion hearing, said the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires all school districts to identify, locate and evaluate all students with disabilities regardless of their severity.
"This obligation to identify all children who may need special education services exists even if the school is not providing special education services to the child," Dossie said. "The disabilities can be a behavior problem. There could be other underlying things (such as) ADHD or something like that."
Dossie said that the student was in a program to help deal with his behavior from first grade through fifth grade. This ended after elementary school and he then began being suspended and given referrals instead.
"You have a problem with the school district using suspensions and expulsions as a way of dealing with behavior," he said. "Students (of color) are still being disproportionately disciplined. You may have like 12% or 16% ... Black students in Bay District Schools, but yet 40% (are the victims) of unique suspensions and expulsions."
This article originally appeared on The News Herald: Panama City mom suing school system over son's expulsion