School Climate & Safety

Wis. District Sues State Schools Chief Over Youth’s Expulsion

By Julie Blair — November 10, 1999 2 min read

A Wisconsin school district filed suit last week in a move to prevent state Superintendent John T. Benson from overriding its decision to expel a 16-year-old boy who had made a bomb threat.

Officials in the 4,700-student Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District claim that the state schools chief exceeded his authority. They are asking a Milwaukee County circuit court to reinstate the original punishment. The student could have returned to school under the order, but has not done so, according to Robert J. Paul, the chief legal counsel for the state education department. The boy is currently attending an area vocational school.

The bomb threat was made May 13 by the youth and a 17-year-old student, both juniors at Oak Creek High School, according to John B. Voorhees, the superintendent of the district outside Milwaukee. The 16-year-old had driven the 17-year-old to a pay phone late at night, from which the older student called the high school. He left a message on an answering machine saying that an explosion would occur the following afternoon. No explosion took place, and police traced the calls to the students. But the school was shut down, and students were bused to another location for an afternoon of classes.

The school board subsequently ruled that the unidentified 16-year-old would be expelled for three years starting this fall and be given the option of probation in the 2000-01 school year, Mr. Voorhees said. The 17-year- old was expelled, then tried and convicted as a felon.

Incorrect Procedure?

Acting on an administrative appeal, the state found that the school board had not followed the correct procedure in a hearing to decide the fate of the 16-year-old. According to Mr. Paul, the student was misled about how long he could be expelled, and the district superintendent sat in on the school board’s decisionmaking process, which may have skewed the results.

“That’s like letting the prosecutor go into the jury deliberations. It is fundamentally unfair,” Mr. Paul said of the superintendent’s presence at the board’s executive session. To allow such practices would mean that “the school district is free to violate the rights of pupils,” Mr. Paul said.

The district also failed to inform the young man and his parents that he could be expelled until the 2001-02 school year, instead of telling them that he might only be prevented from attending during the 1999-2000 school year, Mr. Paul said.

But the superintendent said district officials had done nothing wrong.

“According to our law firm ... we followed all procedural steps to the tee,” Mr. Voorhees said last week. “I’ve long felt that the bureaucrats at the department of public instruction, when given an opportunity to take a firm stand against school violence, have been less than dynamic.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as Wis. District Sues State Schools Chief Over Youth’s Expulsion

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