In a lawsuit filed in federal court last week, an African-American Cleburne County High School student alleges he was discriminated against, punished more severely than white students for the same offense, and retaliated against by three members of the Cleburne County Board of Education for appealing that harsher punishment.
Further, Brown alleges his suspension from participating in sports since January and continuing through the first nine weeks of the 2016-2017 school year has damaged his future in football, as he was being recruited by colleges including the University of Alabama.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of rising senior Chad Brown by his father Ricky Brown, states that the younger Brown and three white males were charged with unlawful possession of marijuana and pleaded guilty in juvenile court in January. All four were given probation.
The students were then subjected to discipline by the Cleburne County Board of Education. A hearing was held for all four students in January.
According to the lawsuit, Brown was expelled from school while one white student was given a 10-day suspension and the other two white students were given 45-day suspensions. The lawsuit states that Brown held a “B” average in January when the incident occurred. Brown has attended Cleburne County schools since the fall of 2005.
Brown’s parents appealed the ruling to the board and a second hearing was held in early February.
As a result of the second hearing, the expulsion was repealed and Brown was required to attend alternative school through the end of the year. In addition to the alternative school placement, the board suspended Brown from participating in any extracurricular activities, including sports, until the end of the first nine weeks of the 2016-2017 school year.
In addition to alleging the board disciplined Brown differently than white students guilty of the same offense, the lawsuit alleges three board members, Jerry Cash, Lonny Watson and Hope Lee, in a 3-2 vote, retaliated against Brown because he appealed the initial expulsion. The lawsuit alleges the three board members punished Brown in a “disparate manner”. Cash, Watson and Lee are named in both their official and individual capacities.
The lawsuit alleges that the board’s violations of Brown’s constitutional rights have caused him to suffer “severe and substantial damages. These damages include diminished earnings capacity, lost career and educational opportunities, litigation expenses including attorney fees, loss of reputation, humiliation, embarrassment, inconvenience, mental and emotional anguish and distress”.
Brown has requested a trial by jury. As a remedy, the lawsuit states Brown wants the actions of the board to be declared unlawful and unconstitutional, and for the board to stop interfering with actions that could affect his employment opportunities in addition to compensatory damages and attorney fees.
Brown’s attorney, Clarence Dortch, said he could not comment regarding the lawsuit.
When asked about Brown’s lawsuit, superintendent Claire Dryden said she was unable to comment on pending litigation.
However, Dryden did confirm the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating a complaint against the Cleburne County Board of Education but couldn’t give any details, citing pending litigation.
Cleburne County school district enrollment figures from the 2015-2016 school year show the proportion of Black students is 4.8% in the district as a whole and 5.7% at Cleburne County High School.
UPDATE, July 11: In an emailed response on Friday, Board member Jerry Cash shared official board minutes from the January board hearings where Brown and the other three students were disciplined, saying,
“It [sic] sad that the media tries and convicts people on the internet without having even half the facts. This link below is to the minutes of the expulsion hearing we heard that night. The names of the students are withheld for the privacy of minors. Of eight hearings three students were expelled and five were sent to alternative school. This information does not scratch the surface of the facts pertaining to this matter. I am sharing this with you because it is public information. “
Here is the link Cash sent. The initial disciplinary hearing in question was held January 20, according to the attachment Cash sent along with his emailed statement. Here are the minutes from Brown’s appeal on February 5.
Board members Lee and Watson did not respond to requests for comment.
UPDATE, July 11: In response to a request asking whether an official complaint had been filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s (USDOE) Office of Civil Rights, a spokesperson from the USDOE emailed this statement:
“Due to federal privacy laws, we are prohibited from identifying people associated with our civil rights cases, including complainants. However, we can confirm that there is an open investigation at the Cleburne County School District in Alabama involving Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in regard to discipline and retaliation. As you may know, Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in all programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.”
[This article was updated on July 11 to include Jerry Cash’s statement and the statement from the U.S. Department of Education’s spokesperson. The embedded court document was changed to a version redacting the names of students other than Brown.]