Excerpted From: Anna Manogue, Distinguishing Juvenile Law and Juvenile Education: Undoing the School-to-Prison Pipeline Approved in In Re S.F., 82 Maryland Law Review 741 (2023) (389 Footnotes) (Full Document)


AnnaManogueIn In re S.F., the then-Court of Appeals of Maryland held that a juvenile probation condition requiring a child to “attend school regularly without suspension[]” is not impermissibly vague. Although the court correctly applied Maryland law to uphold the condition, the incorporation of schoolsuspensions into juvenile court sanctions exposes Maryland's schoolchildren to compounding forms of arbitrary treatment. By affirming the role of juvenile courts in school-based punishments, the court undercut the purpose of schooldiscipline and approved the school-to-prison pipeline in Maryland. The General Assembly should amend the Juvenile Causes Statute to curtail the use of no-suspension conditions of juvenile probation.

I. The Case

S.F. was twelve years old when the State filed delinquency charges against him in the juvenile court of Frederick County, Maryland, in 2018. At the time, S.F. attended a public middle school in Frederick County where he received learning accommodations pursuant to his individualized education program (“IEP”). Between 2018 and 2019, the State filed two delinquency petitions, charging S.F. first with second-degree assault and later with misdemeanor theft.

In November 2018, the State charged S.F. with second-degree assault after a physical altercation between S.F. and another student, J.C., at his school. During school hours, S.F. and a peer entered a classroom and began punching J.C. On February 12, 2019, S.F. entered an Alford plea to the second-degree assault charge. The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services (“DJS”) recommended a sentence of indefinite probation based on a Social History Investigation and Recommendation that documented S.F.'s previous misbehavior and suspensions.

The magistrate judge presiding at S.F.'s disposition hearing for the second-degree assault charge imposed probation subject to several special conditions. Importantly, the magistrate judge required S.F. to “attend school regularly without any unexcused absences, suspensions, or tardies.” S.F. objected that this no-suspension condition was vague because S.F. could not control whether school authorities chose to suspend him. S.F's attorney also argued that S.F., as an African American student with an educational disability, faced a higher probability of suspension in Maryland. The magistrate judge overruled the objection, reasoning that the condition was not vague because suspensions address students' affirmative behaviors and S.F. could litigate any suspension he received at his violation of probation hearing. S.F. filed an exception to the no-suspension condition.

Before the circuit court could hear S.F.'s exception, the State charged S.F. with misdemeanor theft in April 2019. The theft charge stemmed from a December 2018 home burglary in which a homeowner reported that a pair of Nike Air Jordan shoes and a Tommy Hilfiger jacket had been taken from their home. In May 2019, S.F. entered an Alford plea for the misdemeanor theft charge, and the juvenile court placed S.F. on probation to be served concurrently with his probation for second-degree assault. Despite S.F.'s objection, the probation again included a no-suspension condition. S.F. filed a second exception to the no-suspension condition and requested that the court consider both exceptions concurrently.

The circuit court denied S.F.'s exceptions and held that the no-suspension condition was not vague. The court determined that procedures in the school and legal system protected S.F. from arbitrary punishment. Specifically, the court explained that most schools provide an explanation for every suspension and allow students to challenge their suspensions. At a violation of probation hearing, the juvenile court would consider the basis for a suspension before finding a violation of probation. S.F. appealed.

The then-Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court's holding that the no-suspension condition was not vague and that sufficient procedural safeguards protected S.F. from arbitrary punishment. The court determined that the condition was not vague because the student code of conduct for Frederick County Public Schools (“FCPS”) clearly defined behaviors for which a student could be suspended and the FCPS Calendar Handbook (“FCPS Handbook”) sufficiently limited administrators' power to suspend. The court emphasized that S.F. had notice of suspension-worthy behaviors because FCPS publishes the student code of conduct on its public website and in the FCPS Handbook every year. The court cited common conditions of probation--including maintaining employment and reporting to a probation officer--to demonstrate that many valid probation conditions vest authority in third parties.

The court next held that sufficient procedural safeguards protected S.F. from both an arbitrary suspension and an arbitrary violation of probation. The court identified five procedural protections in the FCPS Handbook that shield students from arbitrary suspension. The court then explained that a suspension does not automatically constitute a violation of probation. A juvenile court may only find a probation violation after the State has met its burden to prove that the probationer did not comply with a condition of probation. Even then, the probationer may avoid a probation violation by proving that his noncompliance was not willful and occurred “through no fault of his own.”

Although S.F. successfully completed his probation and the juvenile court closed his case in May 2020, S.F. petitioned for certiorari in 2021. The then-Court of Appeals granted certiorari to consider whether the juvenile court properly made a discretionary schoolsuspension a violation of a child's probation.

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In re S.F. accurately applies law based on an inaccurate vision of both the Maryland public school system and the juvenile legal system. Schoolchildren, and particularly African American children and children with disabilities, now bear the consequences of the General Assembly's inaccurate perceptions of both systems. The General Assembly should amend the Juvenile Causes Statute to eliminate the risk that inherently vague school disciplinary proceedings inappropriately increase a child's contact with the juvenile legal system.

J.D. Candidate, 2024, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.