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Decision No. 13,841

Appeal of SANDRA L., on behalf of JOHN A., from action of the Board of Education of the Pittsford Central School District relating to student discipline.

Decision No. 13,841

(October 10, 1997)

Harris, Beach & Wilcox, LLP, attorneys for respondent, Laura M. Purcell, Esq., of counsel

 

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals respondent's decision to suspend her son from school for the remainder of the 1996-1997 school year. The appeal must be dismissed.

During the 1996-1997 school year, John A. was a student at respondent's high school. On February 7, 1997, school authorities learned that he was in possession of a knife having a blade four to five inches in length, which he had strapped to his leg beneath his trousers. John A. was immediately suspended, and by a letter dated February 13, 1997, respondent's superintendent advised his parents that a superintendent's hearing would be conducted on February 25. At the February 25 hearing, two of respondent's assistant principals testified that they had questioned John A., that he had shown them the knife, unbuckled it from his leg, and turned it over to them. They further testified that John A. said that because he was concerned about someone who had been bothering him, he wanted to be "prepared." At the hearing, John A. did not testify at length, but, in response to the superintendent's questions, admitted that he had possessed the knife.

By letter dated March 3, 1997, the superintendent advised John A.'s parents that he would be suspended through the end of the 1996-1997 school year. This determination was based on the information produced at the hearing and John A.'s anecdotal record. This appeal was commenced on March 18. On March 24, respondent heard arguments on John A.'s appeal. By a letter dated March 26, respondent's president advised John A.'s parents that respondent had affirmed the superintendent's determination in all respects. On April 2, I denied petitioner's stay request, which sought to have her son returned to school immediately.

Petitioner challenges the penalty as excessive under the circumstances. Petitioner also claims that during the early part of the suspension, respondent failed to provide alternative instruction.

Respondent disputes petitioner's claims as to excessiveness, and alleges that the penalty was appropriate for the seriousness of the offense. Respondent admits some difficulty in providing alternative instruction at the beginning of the suspension, but claims that those difficulties have been resolved and that John A. did receive proper instruction.

I find no reason to substitute my judgment for that of the board of education with respect to the penalty imposed, although I have the authority to do so in a proper case (Appeal of Tietje, 34 Ed Dept Rep 567; Appeal of Stewart, 34 id. 193). Penalties imposed in cases of student discipline must be proportionate to the severity of the offense (Matter of Durkee, 20 Ed Dept Rep 94). Only in cases where the penalty is clearly excessive will I act to substitute my judgment for that of the board (Appeal of Alexander, 36 Ed Dept Rep 160; Appeal of Forestiero, 34 id. 592; Appeal of Homick, 34 id. 150).

The possession of a weapon such as a knife by a student in a school is a very serious matter, and must be sanctioned accordingly. In prior decisions, the Commissioner of Education has considered appropriate penalties to be imposed in cases based upon possession of a knife or other similar weapon. In Appeal of Alexander, supra, a suspension of 29 school days was upheld. In Appeal of John T. (30 Ed Dept Rep 1), the Commissioner refused to annul a one year suspension based upon possession of a boxcutter. In Appeal of Judy F. (34 id. 81), a student was found guilty of possessing an 8 to 9 inch long knife on school grounds. The Commissioner refused to uphold a permanent suspension, but determined that a suspension from March 23, 1994, to the end of the 1993-1994 school year was appropriate. I find the penalty imposed in this case to be well within these parameters, and I decline to substitute my judgment.

Although I dismiss this appeal, I am concerned about respondent's failure to provide alternative education as required by statute. Education Law "3214(3)(e) provides in part: "Where a pupil has been suspended as insubordinate or disorderly and said pupil is of compulsory attendance age, immediate steps shall be taken for his attendance upon instruction elsewhere or for supervision or detention . . ." Although the parties present somewhat conflicting versions of the facts, it seems clear that John A. was suspended from school on February 7, 1997, and that respondent first arranged for tutoring on March 6, 1997. Petitioner alleges that the first tutoring session did not actually occur until March 21, and that full tutoring in all core subject areas was not in place until well into April. This is clearly unacceptable.

In Appeal of Bridges (34 Ed Dept Rep 232), a case in which a school district contended that it had no obligation to provide alternative instruction during a two-day suspension, the Commissioner set forth his views on the importance of arranging alternative education as quickly as possible. That decision cited Matter of Kulik (21 Ed Dept Rep 567) and quoted the following language: "Respondent's delay of four days in providing alternate instruction was not reasonable, and respondent is admonished to promptly provide alternate instruction in the future for suspended students." The delay in the instant appeal is entirely unreasonable.

Respondent is therefore admonished to comply fully with the dictates of Education Law "3214 regarding the provision of alternative instruction in the imposition of any future disciplinary sanctions.

I have considered the parties' remaining contentions and find them without merit.

THE APPEAL IS DISMISSED.

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