High Court Declines Case on ‘Zero Tolerance’ Discipline

By Mark Walsh — June 25, 2012 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear the appeal of a Virginia high school student who received a long-term suspension for using a “pea-shooter” or “blowgun” to fire tiny plastic BB’s during the lunch period.

The court’s action came on an extremely busy day as it nears the end of its term. The court also denied review in another education case, but agreed to take up an employment-discrimination case over alleged racial harassment among employees at a university. And it issued major rulings on state efforts to battle illegal immigration and juvenile justice.

The appeal in Mikel v. School Board of Spotsylvania County (No. 11-1276) involved a student disciplined for shooting plastic BB’s or pellets at several fellow students, some of whom reported suffering welts on their arms. Andrew Mikel received a suspension for the rest of the 2010-11 school year over the December 2010 incident.

Mikel and his father sued the Spotsylvania County district, claiming that it was arbitrary and capricious for the school board to suspend him under its rules against violent criminal conduct. Although a state judge said that while reasonable people may agree or disagree about whether the pea shooter and pellets met the definition of a weapon, he upheld the discipline. Virginia’s highest court declined to disturb the ruling.

Mikel’s Supreme Court appeal raised questions about due process and “zero tolerance” policies. The justices declined the appeal without comment.

Also on Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of a New York state teacher who claimed he faced retaliation for speaking out in public against the spending practices of the Clinton Central school district, and for filing a lawsuit against the district.

Teacher Norman P. Deep Jr. said school officials sought to remove him as head football coach and later denied him the athletic director’s job at his school in retaliation for his speech on matters of public concern.

A jury ruled against the teacher, and a federal appeals court ruled against the teacher’s claim that the jury received incorrect instructions from the trial judge.

The high court declined without comment to hear the teacher’s appeal in Deep v. Clinton Central School District (No. 11-1243).

The justices did add a case to their docket for next term involving employment issues at a university, which could be of interest to school districts.

In Vance v. Ball State University (No. 11-556), the court will decide when employers can be held liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for illegal harassment by a supervisory employee. Some federal appeals courts have ruled that the law applies only when harassment is by a supervisor who has the power to hire, fire, promote, transfer, or discipline his or her victims, while some other appeals courts have adopted a broader interpretation that includes supervisors who merely oversee their victims’ daily work.

The court took up the appeal of a black catering worker at Ball State who claimed racial harassment by her white supervisor in the university’s catering department. It will hear arguments during the term that begins next October.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.