On April 28, 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC) issued a decision regarding the delegation of a superintendent’s statutory authority to hear a student’s appeal from a principal’s decision under M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H.
In Doe v. Worcester Public Schools, SJC-12827, a student in the Worcester Public Schools was suspended for 152 school days after a hearing before the principal pursuant to the district’s student disciplinary rules and M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H. The student appealed the principal’s decision pursuant to M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H. The school safety director, the superintendent’s designee, conducted the appeal hearing and reduced the suspension to 112 school days.
The plaintiff student brought a lawsuit against the district, arguing that the district violated M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H(d) by designating the school safety director to hear the student’s appeal of the principal’s decision. The plaintiff student argued that a disciplinary hearing pursuant to M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H must be held by the superintendent, not their designee.
In interpreting M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H, the SJC noted the statute is clear: “expelled students have a right to appeal to, and have a hearing before, the superintendent.” In comparison, the SJC examined M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H ¾ which explicitly permits a superintendent or a designee to hear an appeal of a principal’s decision. The SJC reasoned this statutory distinction “makes sense” because M.G.L c.71, § 37H may result in a permanent expulsion for serious offenses (i.e. assault on school staff, possession of a dangerous weapon, possession of a controlled substance), whereas discipline under M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H ¾ results from less serious offenses. The SJC held that granting students the ability to appeal directly to the superintendent when facing discipline for serious offenses under M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H provides these students greater procedural protections.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had previously provided an interpretation of M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H that permitted districts to delegate the appeal duties. The SJC rejected this interpretation.
- Disciplinary appeals under M.G.L. c. 71, 37H (assault on school staff, possession of a dangerous weapon, possession of a controlled substance) should be heard directly by the superintendent.
- Disciplinary appeals under M.G.L. c. 71, 37H ½ (felony complaint or conviction), while not addressed by this decision, contain the same statutory language as M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H, and should be heard directly by the superintendent.
- Disciplinary appeals under M.G.L. c. 71, 37H ¾ may be heard by the superintendent, or a designee.
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This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.