A Homestead charter school’s decision to kick out a troubled third-grader has drawn legal threats by the Miami-Dade school district and raised questions about the circumstances under which charter schools can remove their students.
The dispute with Somerset Academy Silver Palms began last month after an 8-year-old was accused of punching four classmates and striking his teacher twice in the face. The school suspended the student and sent him home for 10 days.
But district officials say Silver Palms administrators were wrong when they told the child’s mother she couldn’t bring her son back and then withdrew the student when the boy returned to school after his suspension ended. The student’s mother said she picked up her son when the school threatened to call police.
“They withdrew my child without my consent,” said the mother, who has hired an attorney. “They’re supposed to help children and the parent, and give us resources. Instead, I was denied every right I have.”
Silver Palms representatives say the school was following Florida law, which requires that schools protect students and faculty from “violent and disruptive student behavior.” School records show the student, who according to his mother is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, has a long history of behavioral issues going back to his time at a previous school. The Miami Herald is not naming the mother or child to protect the child’s identity.
“When there is a situation where the safety and well-being of any of our students or teachers is in jeopardy, we are obligated to act swiftly to resolve the issue,” Andreina Figueroa, Somerset’s governing board chairwoman, wrote in a Thursday letter to the district.
Charter schools receive taxpayer dollars, but operate independently under private governing boards. They are established through contracts, or charters, with school districts.
A 2003 attorney general opinion says a “charter school may dismiss a student as provided for in its charter.” Charters are contracts with school districts that allow the independent schools to operate. But some districts, like Miami-Dade, prohibit involuntary dismissals.
According to Tiffanie Pauline, Miami-Dade’s assistant superintendent overseeing charter schools, the district’s “charter contracts and School Board Policy expressly forbid a charter school from the involuntary withdrawal, dismissal and/or expulsion of a student.”
State law isn’t explicit on the matter.
Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from West Park, says Florida’s law needs to be clearer and more restrictive. Jones recently filed a bill seeking to clarify why and how charter schools can dismiss students after an Orlando charter school principal threatened last month to remove students from her school who had failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.
“The law needs to be clear,” Jones said. “Charter schools shouldn’t have special privileges when it comes to how they dismiss a child from the school.”
Further muddying the dispute, Silver Palms principal Kerri Ann O’Sullivan initially wrote in an email to the district that the boy was withdrawn from school based on a “behavior contract” the mother signed when the boy enrolled.
Parent contracts are typical in charter schools.
“The child has violated his behavior contract signed by the parent and therefore has been withdrawn from the school,” she wrote. “The child will not be returning to Silver Palms.”
But in her Thursday letter, Figueroa backtracked, saying the student’s mother declined an offer of extended indoor suspension for the boy and enrolled her son in a new school before Silver Palms could dismiss him.
Pauline, the assistant superintendent, said the district has to approve any parent contract issued by charters, and wouldn’t have approved an agreement that allows the school to kick out its students in violation of Miami-Dade policies. “While it is commonly miscommunicated that charter schools can ‘dismiss’ students for any reason as long as the parent signs a contract agreeing to those terms, there is no legal authority for this practice. However, somewhere along the way, charter schools have attempted to include provisions well beyond parent volunteer hours in parent contracts as conditions for admission, dismissal, re-enrollment and expulsion,” she wrote in a statement. “No charter school has the right to expel any child for any reason.”
Pauline, in a letter sent to Silver Palms this month, demanded the school end the practice of dismissing students, revise its code of student conduct and receive approval for any contract presented to parents. She said the district would “pursue all legal options available” to ensure the school followed its contract and state law.
Figueroa wrote back that all Pauline’s requests that were required by law or by the school’s contract have been completed.
The dismissed student is now attending Coconut Palm K-8 Academy, a district school.