Decision No. 12,636
Appeal of MICHAEL J. PRONTI, on behalf of John Pronti, from action of John M. Kent, as Principal of Horseheads High School of the Horseheads Central School District, and William Congdon, as Assistant Principal, relating to a suspension from school.
Decision No. 12,636
(January 21, 1992)
Sayles, Evans, Brayton, Palmer & Tifft, Esqs., attorneys for respondents, James F. Young, Esq., of counsel
SOBOL, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals from respondents' actions and determinations which led to his son's suspension from school for a period of three days. Petitioner requests that I issue an order annulling the suspension and reprimanding respondents for their actions relating to the suspension. The appeal must be sustained in part.
Petitioner is the father of John Pronti, a student attending Horseheads High School. On or about November 28, 1990, John Kent, the Principal of Horseheads High School, was investigating the alleged theft of certain clothing and other items from students at the school. During the course of that investigation, respondent Kent questioned John Pronti and John denied the theft of the articles in question. He then advised John Pronti that the students whose clothing and property had allegedly been taken had referred their complaint to a law enforcement agency for investigation. Subsequently, after further questioning by respondent Kent, John Pronti admitted taking a Walkman radio, which did not belong to him, from the boys' gym locker room. Respondent Kent then contacted John Pronti's mother and arranged for her to meet with him to discuss the incident.
The meeting was held later that afternoon and respondent Kent decided to suspend John from instruction for a three-day period to include November 29, 30 and December 3, 1990. Respondent Kent directed Assistant Principal William Congdon to write to petitioner and Mrs. Pronti to inform them of the suspension. Another meeting was held on November 29, 1990, at the request of Mrs. Pronti, and after a discussion, the suspension was continued. The following day, November 30, 1990, petitioner met with respondents Kent and Congdon to discuss the suspension, but respondents did not alter the terms of the suspension.
Petitioner commenced this appeal by service of a notice of petition and petition upon respondents Kent and Congdon on December 21 and December 22, 1990, respectively. The Horseheads Central School District was served on December 24, 1990.
Petitioner argues that it was improper, unjust, and an abuse of authority for respondent Kent to have secured an incriminating admission from John Pronti in the manner described in the petition, and that respondent's failure to notify petitioner and his wife prior to securing the admission constituted an abuse of his authority and a breach of his duties. Petitioner further contends that respondent improperly failed to ascertain the precise circumstances under which John Pronti took the radio and to determine whether John Pronti intended to keep the radio. Petitioner also argues that it was improper under the circumstances to decide that John Pronti had admitted to stealing the radio.
Respondents contend that their actions were in all respects proper. Respondent Kent alleges that while questioning John Pronti concerning the clothing which was missing from the gym locker room, John admitted taking the radio. Respondent further alleges that this admission formed the basis for his decision to suspend John Pronti for a period of three days and that this determination was in accord with established board policy.
In his reply, petitioner alleges that respondents did not comply with certain procedures required by district policy. In particular, petitioner alleges that, contrary to respondents' disciplinary policy, respondents (1) failed to inform John Pronti of the specific charges or of the time and place for a disciplinary conference, (2) failed to hold a conference, or alternatively, failed to inform John Pronti at the conference of the charges against him and the evidence supporting the charges, and (3) denied John Pronti the opportunity to present information and witnesses in his defense. Petitioner further contends that the district's policy was violated because the suspension was imposed without the action of the superintendent. Additionally, petitioner alleges that respondents violated Education Law '3214(d)(3) in that John was not allowed to ask questions of complaining witnesses. In an affidavit submitted with the reply, John Pronti alleges that after taking the radio from the locker room he saw another student looking at it and asked that student if he knew who owned the radio. Upon being told that the student knew the owner, John alleges that he gave the radio to the student and asked him to return it to its owner. John further states that he related all of this to the principal on November 28, 1990 and that he specifically asked if he could bring in a witness to substantiate his statements, but was denied permission to do so.
I note that respondents substantially complied with due process requirements as well as district procedures in that John was allowed an opportunity to explain his version of the facts (Goss v. Lopez, 419 US 565) and a conference between respondents and the parents was scheduled and held in accordance with district policy. Under the circumstances of this case, since the suspension is based upon an admission by the student, there is no practical reason to require respondents to explain the charges against the student or supply the facts necessary to support them. Therefore, I cannot conclude on these facts that respondents' actions violated the provisions of Education Law '3214 (d)(3), or the corresponding provisions of district policy.
With respect to petitioner's claim that district policy requires that the superintendent of schools take action to implement a student suspension, the district's disciplinary procedures appear to contain conflicting provisions. One provision authorizes a principal to implement a suspension for up to five days, while another provision appears to require that some action be taken by the superintendent to implement a suspension. However, it is not possible on this record to resolve the ambiguities which appear to exist in the applicable procedures. In any event, determination of whether that procedural aspect of respondents' policy was violated is not necessary to the disposition of this case.
Finally, neither the provisions of the Education Law nor constitutional due process considerations require that school officials contact parents before questioning students about possible infractions of school rules. Moreover, Education Law '3214(c) provides that a student charged with an infraction is entitled to present witnesses on his own behalf only when the suspension exceeds five school days.
However, once a school district adopts a policy and procedure for discipline of students, the procedures embodied in that policy must be followed (Appeal of Nuttall, 30 Ed Dept Rep 351, 354). As set forth in respondents' answer, district policy requires that a student charged with a disciplinary infraction must be permitted to present information and witnesses in defense of the charge. John Pronti's affidavit alleges that he requested an opportunity to present witnesses to support his claim that he did not remove the radio from the locker room with the intention of keeping it, but his request was denied by respondents. Therefore, on this record, respondents failed to follow district procedures in suspending John.
The appeal must, therefore, be sustained in part, and respondents are directed to permit petitioner to produce a witness on his behalf and to then determine whether the record of the suspension shall remain as it now stands, or, alternatively, respondents are directed to remove any reference to the suspension from district records.
THE APPEAL IS SUSTAINED TO THE EXTENT INDICATED.
IT IS ORDERED that respondents proceed forthwith in accordance with this decision.
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