Ruling That Overturned Suspension of Student With Gun Assailed

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A court ruling that overturned the suspension of a student who brought a gun to school because the boy was searched illegally has caused an uproar in the New York City schools.

Leaders of the unions representing teachers and school safety aides denounced the ruling last month by a state appeals court. The district's lawyers vowed to appeal to the state's highest court. And Gov. George E. Pataki weighed in on the issue, promising legislation that would give school officials greater authority to suspend students caught with guns.

But legal experts found nothing extraordinary in the ruling by the four-judge panel, saying it upheld the principle that evidence obtained illegally is inadmissible in court and other proceedings.

The ruling came in the case of Juan C., who was a 15-year-old student at William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx in December 1992 when a school security aide suspected him of carrying a gun.

The aide later said he saw a bulge weighing down the student's leather jacket. Upon further searching, security officers found a gun in Juan C.'s jacket.

Based on a courtroom demonstration in which the gun was not distinguishable from inside the jacket pocket, a family court judge ruled that the security aide had no reasonable suspicion to believe the boy was carrying a gun. The judge dismissed a delinquency petition against Juan C.

In a separate proceeding, a school system hearing officer ruled the opposite way: that the aide had a valid reason to suspect that the boy had a gun.

The hearing officer, then-Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines, and the central school board agreed that the family court's ruling should not apply to the disciplinary proceeding. Juan C. was suspended for a year.

The boy's lawyers began legal proceedings to have the suspension overturned. They lost in a state trial court, but won last month in the appellate division.

The appeals court held on Sept. 17 that the exclusionary rule, which bars evidence obtained illegally, applies to a school disciplinary hearing. Since the family court had already ruled the search illegal, the evidence should also have been excluded from the school disciplinary ruling, the court said.

"If security aides are to be deterred from engaging in unlawful conduct with respect to the Fourth Amendment rights of students, they must understand that their methods of enforcing school safety rules are subject to scrutiny," the court ruled in Juan C. v. Cortines.

The court ordered the suspension expunged from Juan C.'s school records. Lawyers for the boy, now 19, told local reporters that Juan never completed an alternative high school program but has stayed out of trouble since the incident.

After last month's ruling, the current chancellor, Rudy F. Crew, proposed that any student older than 17 caught carrying a weapon be expelled.

The Virginia Supreme Court has rejected a student journalist's bid for access to the vote tallies of a student election at a Centreville, Va., high school.

The case involved the 1995 elections at Centreville High School. Lucas Wall, who was then the editor of the student newspaper, requested the vote totals so they could be analyzed. The school's principal and student government adviser decided to keep them secret.

Principal Pamela Latt said the tallies were exempt under the state's public-records law. The results, she said, could embarrass or humiliate the losing candidates and discourage participation in future elections.

Mr. Wall filed a lawsuit seeking the totals, but lost in a state trial court and in the state high court last month.

In a Sept. 13 ruling in Wall v. Fairfax County School Board, the court said the vote tallies fall under the "scholastic records" exemption to the open-records law. The election results contain information about identifiable students and thus fit the meaning of scholastic records, the unanimous ruling says.

Mr. Wall, now a journalism and political science student at the University of Missouri, has said he will help with efforts to lobby the Virginia legislature to change the definition of scholastic records in the state law.

A former Illinois high school student has won a preliminary victory in a lawsuit claiming that his suburban Chicago school failed to stop classmates from tormenting him because he is gay.

The boy, who is now 19, is identified in court papers as Mario Doe. He alleges that officials in the Riverside-Brookfield district did not adequately respond to his complaints about verbal and physical anti-gay abuse from fellow students.

The case is one of two nationwide in which homosexual students are seeking to hold school officials liable for their abuse by other students. ("Gay Students Press Abuse Claims Against Districts," April 24, 1996.)

Judge Michael Hogan of Cook County Circuit Court refused the district's request to dismiss the suit. The judge said Sept. 4 that the district was potentially liable for "willful and wanton misconduct" and for the "failure to maintain discipline and the safety of a student."

The judge dismissed a portion of the suit that involved a second student, who also alleged anti-gay abuse. The judge cited a lack of evidence in that student's case.

The school district is seeking to appeal the preliminary ruling.

--MARK WALSH [email protected]

Vol. 16, Issue 05

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