Audit discussion at end of meeting still counts as open, school says

? Lawyers say disciplined students don't have the same rights guaranteed to people charged with criminal offenses.

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By DREW CARTER

Parents and community members spoke out last week about the discipline system at Oak Park and River Forest High School shortly before the Board of Education voted 6-0 to amend the school's discipline policy.

Oak Park's state legislators in July directed the Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education to audit OPRF's discipline system amid complaints that punishments were not being meted out fairly.

But those finding fault will get little relief in the revised policy, which was completed as part of an ongoing overhaul of all of the school's policies to bring them up to date, rather than to make any specific improvements.

Within the revised policy are rules that stack the cards in the school's favor when dealing with students, say lawyers who advocate for students' rights.

"We are told that the school's staff is basically [unresponsive] to parents who have questions about the process," Melinda Malecki, an attorney and a member of the Community Code of Conduct Committee, told the board at its Nov. 18 meeting. "We do not believe that there is informed consent about the rights of due process.... Attorneys who work within this school's disciplinary process say that due process here is a joke."

Malecki later said that she would not reveal names of attorneys she spoke with.

Board member Yasmine Ranney, who chairs the policy committee, could not be reached for comment. Board member Paul Wolfman, who formerly chaired that committee, declined to comment.

Lawyers interviewed point to parts of the policy that restrict or eliminate due process, such that students in the disciplinary system don't have the same rights guaranteed to people charged with criminal offenses.

For example, OPRF's policy allows school officials to consider any incident?#34;whether it took place at the school or anywhere else, as long as another student, staff member or board member is involved?#34;as cause to bring disciplinary action against a student.

Monica Llorente, a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University School of Law, works with law students to represent children in juvenile delinquency proceedings in the Juvenile Court of Cook County and in school expulsion matters in Chicago.

"From what we've seen, schools have begun to prosecute more of these cases for off-school incidents that may or may not have happened," Llorente said. "This is an issue that needs to be challenged."

The Community Code of Conduct Committee hopes the audit process at OPRF will lead to a review of off-school incidents to understand how police and the school work together, and to ensure consistency and fairness.

The policy also allows for "authorized school personnel [to] provide a written summary in which the identity of a student witness is concealed if any imminent fear of reprisal exists."

But that doesn't fit with basic due process rights, Llorente said.

"Part of due process should be the right to confront your accuser and the right to cross-examine a witness," she said.

New to the policy is a stipulation that a student may be "summarily removed" without holding a suspension conference, and the policy states that if students, parents or guardians do not attend hearings during the suspension or expulsion process they waive the right to have such a hearing.

Unlike when someone is charged with a crime, students are not provided with someone to help defend them and explain their rights during the disciplinary process.

Malecki said someone with a legal background should be appointed to help protect students' rights during suspension and expulsion hearings.

The entire policy underscores something that parents of students being disciplined don't realize until it's too late, that hearings are like mini-trials needing someone with legal expertise, lawyers said.

"If you're not a lawyer, how are you going to know what to do and what not to do?" Llorente said.

Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

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