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Law & Courts

Punishing Task

September 01, 2003 3 min read
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Schools are cracking down on kids gone wild off-campus.

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 and one that captured the attention of the public at the end of this past school year, when national media widely reported the story of an off-campus hazing incident in which seniors from Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Illinois, pelted junior girls with animal feces and other debris. But the Vermont case occurred long before cable TV news channels were around to show taped images of suburban kids gone wild again and again.

It was the 1850s, and the 11-year-old 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.” 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 the offense 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...we think he has the right to punish the scholar for such acts if he comes again to school,” the Vermont high court stated in an opinion that is now a staple of education law textbooks. Julie Underwood, general counsel of the National School Boards Association, says the case 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.”

While school district authority for punishing off-campus behavior goes back to the 19th century, the legal question has yielded some new twists recently. A spate of cases has produced conflicting court rulings about when a student’s behavior on the Internet runs 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 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 Keystone Oaks School District’s discipline of a student who had posted messages critical of his teachers on an Internet message board. 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.”

Northfield Township School District officials took aggressive action when videotapes of Glenbrook North students behaving badly surfaced in May. Claiming that the students had violated state criminal laws against assault, battery, and hazing, as well as a policy against hazing in the student handbook, the district expelled 33 seniors who took part in the incident. Of these, 31 ultimately signed waivers accepting the punishment in exchange for being able to receive their diplomas. The district also doled out nine-day suspensions to the 20 victims, all juniors, for violating an Illinois school code provision prohibiting secret societies.

The legal system was unsympathetic to three seniors who complained in court that the district had overstepped the bounds of its authority. In June, Chief Judge Charles P. Kocoras of the U.S. District Court in Chicago explained his decision to deny two seniors’ request for a temporary restraining order overturning their punishments in this way: “Given the egregious nature of some of the conduct depicted in the videotapes, the nexus of the event to Glenbrook North High School, and the fundamental relationship that all of the participants had to the school, to hold that a school was powerless to act in these circumstances is patently absurd.”

—Mark Walsh

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