Federal Judge Draws the Line On District's Zero-Tolerance Policy

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Federal Judge Draws the Line on District's Zero-Tolerance Policy: School districts' zero-tolerance policies on weapons, drugs, and alcohol may be running into limitations under the U.S. Constitution.

A federal district judge in Tennessee ruled last month that a school board went too far when it expelled a high school student for having a knife in his car. The evidence showed the student was not aware of the weapon, the judge noted.

"Zero hour has indeed arrived for the zero-tolerance policy," U.S. District Judge James H. Jarvis of Knoxville said in his ruling. "This is, in the court's opinion, an appropriate case to draw the line as to what extent students must be responsible for what is present in their vehicles, lockers, and backpacks."

The case involves Dustin W. Seal, who in the fall of 1996 was a junior at Powell High School in the 50,500-student Knox County district. One of Mr. Seal's friends was carrying a knife with a 3½ inch blade for protection because of a dispute with another student. The friend left the knife in the glove compartment of Mr. Seal's mother's car.

Mr. Seal and his friend drove the car to a Friday-night football game at Powell High, where a teacher, based on a report from other students, suspected the two had been drinking. A vice principal searched Mr. Seal's car for a flask of liquor. He didn't find any liquor, but he found the knife.

The school principal suspended Mr. Seal pending expulsion for possession of a weapon under the district's zero-tolerance policy.

Mr. Seal testified that he knew the knife had been in the car a few days earlier, but that he thought it had been removed. A hearing officer and the school board upheld the principal, and the board expelled the boy.

One board member said it was important to send "a clear message to students" that weapons would not be tolerated. "You have to be responsible as a driver for what's in your car," the board member told Mr. Seal, according to court papers.

Mr. Seal sued school officials and the school board, arguing that the search of his car violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and that his expulsion was a denial of due process of law under the 14th Amendment.

In a summary judgment on Jan. 4, Judge Jarvis ruled for school officials on the Fourth Amendment claim, saying they had justification to search the car based on the tip that the students had been drinking alcohol.

But he ruled for Mr. Seal on the due process claim.

"The evidence is undisputed that a dangerous weapon--a knife--was in the glove compartment of Dustin's vehicle," he wrote. "However, the evidence is also undisputed that Dustin had no knowledge whatsoever" of the presence of the knife.

The judge said that under legal standards normally applied in criminal cases, Mr. Seal did not have "possession" of the knife.

Because the evidence was clear that Mr. Seal did not know about the knife, the school board "failed to exercise independent judgment at this juncture, apparently out of fear that it would be emasculating its zero-tolerance policy on weapons."

"The board, in its zeal to implement the zero-tolerance policy, trampled upon the rights of a student who was simply in the presence of someone who probably violated that policy," the judge wrote.

Judge Jarvis noted that the board's policy gives the superintendent the power to modify the zero-tolerance policy's penalties on a case-by-case basis.

"The board and the school superintendent must be willing to reverse the decision of a principal or a disciplinary-hearing officer in appropriate cases," he wrote.

The judge ordered a jury trial to begin in June to determine the amount of damages to be awarded to Mr. Seal.

A lawyer for the district said it was seeking permission from the judge to appeal his legal ruling before the case goes to a jury.

Teacher Dismissals: The Illinois Supreme Court has turned back a constitutional challenge to a state law that was designed to make it easier to get rid of bad teachers. But a teacher who was charged with allowing gambling his classroom is still likely to be reinstated.

Joseph Hearne, a special education teacher at Austin High School in Chicago, was charged in 1995 by district officials with conduct unbecoming a teacher. Mr. Hearne allegedly allowed gambling in his class during instructional time and demanded a cut of the proceeds.

He was also charged with taking students on a field trip to a theater and not paying admission for 11 students.

Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the Chicago schools, suspended Mr. Hearne without pay pending a dismissal hearing. In 1996, however, a state-appointed hearing officer ruled that the district had not proved its case that Mr. Hearne was guilty of the charges, and the teacher was ordered reinstated.

The Chicago school board, using a 1995 state law for the first time, reversed the hearing officer and voted to fire Mr. Hearne. He sued in state court, and a judge ordered the school board to reinstate him.

The judge also struck down the section of the school code that allows the Chicago board to review and reverse the proceedings of hearing officers.

The judge said there was a "built-in procedure for abuse" in the law because it allows the Chicago school superintendent, who approves charges against a teacher, to be present during the deliberations of the school board. In addition, the judge said, the law does not specify what the school board is supposed to consider on reviewing the ruling of a hearing officer.

The Chicago board and the Illinois board of education appealed to the state supreme court, which gave them a partial victory. The high court said the trial court judge should not have reached a decision about the constitutionality of the teacher-removal law.

The justices said that because the judge granted Mr. Hearne administrative relief under the law, the supreme court did not need to go further and declare the law unconstitutional.

"Questions regarding the constitutionality of statutes should be considered only where essential to the disposition of a case, i.e., where the case cannot be determined on other grounds," the court said in its unanimous Jan. 22 opinion.

In a separate proceeding, the Chicago board has asked a state appellate court to reverse the trial judge's administrative ruling that Mr. Hearne be reinstated.

--Mark Walsh [email protected]

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Page 10

Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as Federal Judge Draws the Line On District's Zero-Tolerance Policy
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