School Climate & Safety

Misbehavior Off Campus Raises Issues

By Mark Walsh — May 28, 2003 7 min read
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The student’s behavior was out of line.

Peter Lander Jr. had demeaned his teacher in front of fellow students, using “saucy and disrespectful language,” as a Vermont court put it. The insult took place not at school, but on a street near the teacher’s house, an hour and a half after classes were over.

Could the teacher punish the student for such after-hours misbehavior?

It is a legal question that resonates for administrators, as an off-campus “powder puff” football game in Illinois degenerates into a melee captured on videotape, and students create Web sites at home that denigrate their teachers and schools.

But the Vermont case occurred long before the existence of the Internet and before cable-TV news channels were around to show taped images of suburban hazing again and again.

By today’s standards, the 11-year-old boy’s behavior seems none too outrageous. It was the 1850s, and the boy was coaxing his father’s cow past his schoolmaster’s house. To the amusement of his nearby schoolmates, the boy referred to the teacher as “old Jack Seaver.”

Mr. Seaver heard the comment, and he later whipped the boy with “a small rawhide.” The question for the Vermont Supreme Court in 1859 was whether such an offense away from school was a matter for the boy’s parents, or the school.

“Where the offense has a direct and immediate tendency to injure the school and bring the master’s authority into contempt, as in this case, when done in the presence of other scholars and of the master, and with a design to insult him, we think he has the right to punish the scholar for such acts if he comes again to school,” the Vermont high court said in an opinion that is now a staple of education law textbooks.

Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said she immediately thought of the case of “old Jack Seaver” when the Glenbrook North High School hazing incident made news this month.

The Vermont case, she said, established the principle that off-campus student behavior could be punished by school authorities “as long as you could show a nexus to the school.”

Student Handbook

The Glenbrook North case involved a May 4 off-campus incident in which some senior girls from the high school in Northbrook, Ill., a Chicago suburb, pelted junior girls with animal feces and other debris during a girls’ touch-football game gone out of control. The fracas at a forest preserve was videotaped and has been shown repeatedly on national television.

Administrators in the 4,600-student Northfield Township School District No. 225 initially reacted hesitantly to the brawl, which sent five female students to the hospital. Because the incident was not school-sanctioned and took place off campus, administrators believed they could only bar the participating students from extracurricular activities.

But on May 12, Glenbrook North Principal Mike Riggle told reporters that “legal counsel for the district has further advised us that the school has appropriate jurisdiction to suspend or expel students from their academic participation at school.”

“This increased jurisdiction is based on the fact that the groups involved in this incident came from Glenbrook North High School,” he added.

The district suspended 31 students—28 senior girls and three senior boys—for 10 school days, pending recommendations for expulsion. Then, on May 16, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office filed misdemeanor battery charges against 15 of the seniors.

And last week, two parents and two 18-year-old seniors were charged in connection with providing beer that allegedly helped fuel the violence.

By late last week, the district had made no decisions on expulsions, but had offered the suspended students a deal. They could graduate on time if they dropped their challenges, performed community service, and agreed not to sign book or movie deals.

Several of the seniors, meanwhile, have filed lawsuits that contend the district exceeded its authority by punishing them for off-campus behavior. At least three students sought temporary restraining orders and quickly got hearings before Cook County and federal district judges. But their requests were denied.

Dolores Ayala represents senior girls Liat Gendelman and Taylor Wessel, who were suspended for their alleged role in the hazing but were not criminally charged. Their suit argues the district does not have the authority to discipline them for the incident.

Ms. Ayala focused her challenge on the Glenbrook North student handbook, which states that students face suspension or expulsion “in cases of gross disobedience or misconduct on campus and at all school-sponsored events.”

“It says ‘school-sponsored,’ not ‘school- related,’” the lawyer said. “My argument in court was let them rewrite the handbook. ... If a school can discipline a student anytime, anyplace, then where does it end? Does it extend to Friday nights? To parties?”

U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras, of Chicago, on May 20 declined to issue a temporary restraining order in the case filed by Ms. Ayala, and said he would issue a written ruling later.

The school district has offered several justifications for disciplining the students. First, the participants violated state criminal laws against assault, battery, and hazing, administrators have said. They also violated a policy against hazing in the student handbook. And they ran afoul of a provision of the state public school code that prohibits fraternities, sororities, and secret societies.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Julia Nowicki, who was reviewing suspended student Marnie Holz’s lawsuit, said in court on May 14 that the Glenbrook North student handbook could have been written “in a more clear fashion,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The question of the district’s jurisdiction for its suspensions was “a close call,” the judge added, but she rejected the student’s request to overturn her punishment.

Making a Connection

While school district authority for punishing off-campus behavior goes back to the 19th century, the legal question has yielded some new twists in recent years.

Some districts have simply taken a more aggressive stance toward off-campus behavior such as alcohol and drug use that, in the view of administrators, has a spillover effect at school.

In 1997, the 1,300-student Thomaston, Conn., school system expelled a high school senior who was charged by police with possession of two ounces of marijuana that was found after an off-campus traffic stop. Administrators said the arrest had disrupted the educational process because, among other arguments, the senior’s younger brother was present during the traffic stop and thus other students would become aware of it.

The expelled student challenged a Connecticut law that authorized school districts to punish off-campus behavior. In 1998, the Connecticut Supreme Court declined to strike down the law, but it ruled that possession of marijuana off school grounds in the boy’s case had no “tangible nexus” to the operation of his high school.

“The test is that if you can make that connection to disruption of the educational process, then you can impose discipline,” said Patrice McCarthy, the deputy director and general counsel of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. “It is the responsibility of the school district to make that connection.”

The newest arena for off-campus discipline is the Internet. A spate of cases has yielded conflicting court rulings on when a student’s e-mail communication or personal Web site can run afoul of school rules.

Last September, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a student could be disciplined for a personal Web site called “Teacher Sux,” which included derogatory comments about his principal and a teacher in the 14,000-student Bethlehem Area School District.

Because the student accessed his site on a school computer to show it to a friend, “we find there is a sufficient nexus between the Web site and the school campus to consider the speech as occurring on campus,” the court said.

But in February, a federal district judge in Pittsburgh overturned the 2,750-student Keystone Oaks district’s discipline of a student who had posted messages critical of his teachers on an Internet message board. One of the student’s messages said, “My dog can teach art better than” one of the teachers.

The judge said the school handbook’s ban on “inappropriate language/verbal abuse toward an employee” was unconstitutionally overbroad and vague when applied to “expression that occurs outside of school premises and not tied to a school-related activity.”

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