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Legal Brief                                                 Page 9

 

'It's None of Your Business!' Or Is It?

BY WAYNE YOUNG

 
Legal BriefTwo students on a school bus get into a verbal confrontation with a third student. There is no physical contact on the bus, but when the lone student gets off at his stop, the other two exit, as well, although their stop is a significant distance away.

The pair harass the student as he walks home, eventually subjecting him to physical intimidation and contact as well as taking a few of his possessions. The victim’s parent reports the incident to school officials, who investigate and then suspend the two aggressors. A parent of one of the suspended students challenges the suspension, claiming the matter did not occur at school or on the bus, and thus should not be subject to school discipline.

Identifying a Connection

I occasionally deal with a school administrator who asks me if it is true that schools are responsible for students from door to door — that is, from the time they leave their house until they enter the school and vice versa.

This urban (and rural) legend is like most others — it has some element of truth to it, but it became garbled in translation. Whether a school district or an individual administrator is liable for what may happen to a student on the way to or from school and whether that student is subject to school authority during the same period is far more often a fact-driven inquiry than it is a “bright line” legal concept.

The first component in any consideration of a scenario like the one above is to determine its “nexus” to the school or a school function. In this case, school administrators could conclude reasonably the ultimate incident was simply an extension of what had occurred earlier on the bus. As such, it may provide an appropriate basis for school discipline.

The converse could be true, as well. For example, news of an unpleasant neighborhood incident over a weekend may find its way to school leaders. On Monday morning, all of the involved parties will show up at school. While probably not a basis for school discipline, school officials would be reasonable to take thoughtful, nonpunitive preventive measures to keep the matter from erupting again in the school setting.

Creating a Connection

Sometimes school officials attempt to stretch the nexus concept beyond reasonable dimensions in an effort to exercise jurisdiction over student behavior that is unrelated to the school setting. For example, a school discipline code calling for suspension of any student convicted of a crime in juvenile court would be suspect. Absent an identifiable connection between the student’s criminal behavior and its impact on the school, such a rule likely would be considered excessively broad and thus unenforceable.

The first option for administrators seeking to make a connection between off-campus behavior and the school environment would be to assess the likelihood that the behavior will cause a “substantial disruption” to the learning environment of the school. The substantial-disruption standard was established more than 45 years ago in the famous Tinker case, and it remains a valid measure for school officials to use.

While Tinker is a well-established standard that will apply in many cases, consulting with the school board attorney would certainly be of assistance in determining its application.

Occasionally, administrators may find themselves dealing with matters that do not invoke in-school discipline, yet fall within the purview of being school-related. For example, athletic teams and extracurricular activities might impose behavioral rules on participants that address personal, nonschool-related student behavior.

These rules can be valid, but they must be clear and carefully drawn. Broad prohibitions, such as “No baseball player shall engage in any conduct outside of school that reflects badly on the team,” would likely be invalid. However, a ban on smoking by players, even outside of school, might be reasonable as being illegal, as well as being a health issue related to athletic performance and an inappropriate influence. While not triggering school disciplinary action, the misbehavior certainly could be a basis for removal from the team.

Efforts to address off-campus student behavior may be well-intended and even beneficial to students and the school, but they always should be subject to additional scrutiny by school officials and school board attorneys to ensure they comport with the applicable legal standards.

Wayne Young is the executive director of and general counsel for the Kentucky Association of School Administrators in Frankfort, Ky. E-mail:wayne@kasa.org. Twitter: @KASAEdleader

 

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