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Hearing on student’s suspension cannot be closed by teacher

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IOWA--A school board hearing on a student's proposed suspension, which the student wishes to be open, may not be closed…

IOWA–A school board hearing on a student’s proposed suspension, which the student wishes to be open, may not be closed at the request of a third party, the state Supreme Court in Des Moines ruled in late July.

The court found that the closed meeting, held to consider the proposed suspension of a high school student who had called a teacher’s aide a vulgar name, violated the state open meetings act.

The court said that the board had improperly concluded that the rights of an employee who requests a closed meeting are superior to the rights of a student who requests that it be open.

The court held inapplicable an exemption to the open meetings act that allows a closed meeting to evaluate the professional competency of an individual for the purpose of deciding issues of “appointment, hiring, performance or discharge.” The meeting was for the purpose of considering a proposed suspension, not for evaluating the aide’s competency, the court noted.

In the fall of 1995, Lisbon High School teacher’s aide Deb Lord started a confrontation with student Kyle Schumacher over accusations her husband had made against him and his friends, according to court documents. He retaliated by calling her a name. The exchange of profanities prompted school authorities to impose a one-day suspension on Schumacher and place a letter in Lord’s personnel file.

Schumacher’s parents contested the suspension. They said Lord, who started the argument, should receive equal or greater punishment. They told the school superintendent that they wanted their son’s hearing to be open. But Lord asked the school board to close it.

The Iowa open meetings law contains an exemption allowing closure of hearings to suspend or expel a student unless the student or his guardian requests that the meeting be open. The law also allows closure to “evaluate the professional competency of an individual” when hiring or firing is being considered, if closure is necessary to prevent “needless and irreparable injury” to that person’s reputation.

The school board agreed to honor Lord’s request, citing the exemption to openness for evaluating professional competency.

The Schumachers then sued in Iowa District Court in Cedar Rapids, which in late 1995 ruled that the school board had violated the open meetings law.

The board appealed but the state’s high court affirmed the lower court’s decision. (Schumacher v. Lisbon School Board; Schumachers’ attorney: Scott Peterson, Cedar Rapids)