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Decision No. 16,674

Appeal of R.C. and D.C., on behalf of their daughter L.C., from action of the Board of Education of the Livonia Central School District, Superintendent Matthew Cole, and Vice Principal John Gammon, regarding student discipline.

Decision No. 16,674

(October 6, 2014)

Sean T. Hanna, Esq., attorney for petitioners

The Law Firm of Frank W. Miller, attorneys for respondents, John A. Sickinger, Esq., of counsel

KING, JR., Commissioner.--Petitioners appeal the decision of the Board of Education of the Livonia Central School District (“board”), the Livonia high school, Vice Principal John Gammon and Superintendent Matthew Cole (collectively, “respondents”) to suspend their daughter from extracurricular events and activities.  The appeal must be dismissed.

During the 2013–2014 school year, petitioners and L.C. travelled to Middletown, New York, to attend a Livonia high school soccer game.  Several other students and their families also travelled to this game, although the trip was not organized or sponsored by respondents.  Following the trip, a high school teacher reported to respondent Gammon that he had heard students discussing the consumption of alcohol while on this trip.  Respondent Gammon informed the School Resource Officer, Sheriff’s Deputy Joshua Monster (“Officer Monster”), of the conversation overheard by the teacher.  An investigation was conducted by Officer Monster which involved the questioning of several students, including L.C.  While the parties disagree as to the facts and circumstances surrounding the investigation, the record indicates that L.C. ultimately received a ten-week social suspension, during which she was not permitted to participate in any non-credit bearing extracurricular events or activities.

According to petitioners, they were not given an opportunity to meet with respondent Gammon to discuss L.C.’s suspension prior to the imposition of the suspension.[1]  Subsequently, petitioners appealed the suspension to the superintendent, respondent Cole, who found the suspension to be reasonable and therefore declined to reverse respondent Gammon’s decision.  On January 22, 2014, petitioners appealed the superintendent’s decision to the board, which upheld the superintendent’s decision.  This appeal ensued.

Petitioners claim that respondents violated district policies 7330 and 7420 by inviting local law enforcement officials onto school premises and allowing them to question L.C. without a warrant or the consent of her parents.  Petitioners also contend that respondents’ actions violated various sections of the district’s code of conduct (“code”), which requires that the school: attempt to notify parents prior to questioning a student, prevent questioning if the parent(s) cannot be reached, ensure that the school principal or another designee be present to supervise any questioning, and advise  students of their rights. Petitioners further claim that they were not afforded an opportunity to meet with district officials prior to the imposition of the suspension, in violation of the code.  Finally, petitioners claim that the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department lacked jurisdiction to investigate the matter as the incident occurred out-of-state and that their procedural and substantive due process rights were violated.

Respondents contend that L.C.’s suspension was reasonable considering the circumstances and that any violation of district policies was inadvertent and was remedied immediately by respondents.  Respondents further argue that petitioners were afforded all the due process required by law, as they were given an opportunity to – and in fact did - appeal to the superintendent and to the board.  Additionally, respondents argue that Officer Monster, as a School Resource Officer, was not invited onto school premises to interrogate students; but rather, as part of his role as School Resource Officer, he appropriately investigated the matter once it was brought to his attention.

I must first address a procedural matter. Section 275.14(a) of the Commissioner’s regulations requires that the reply be served in the manner set forth in §275.8(b).  The affidavit of service of petitioner’s reply, received by my Office of Counsel on May 12, 2014, states that the reply was served by mail on May 9, 2014.  However, the affidavit fails to include the name(s) and/or address(es) of the individuals upon whom the reply was served.  On the record before me, there is no proof that the reply has been served upon respondents’ counsel, and as such it cannot be considered.  I also note that, the purpose of a reply is to respond to new material or affirmative defenses set forth in an answer (8 NYCRR §§275.3 and 275.14).  A reply is not meant to buttress allegations in the petition or to belatedly add assertions that should have been in the petition (Appeal of Caswell, 48 Ed Dept Rep 472, Decision No. 15,920; Appeal of Hinson, 48 id. 437, Decision No. 15,908; Appeal of Baez, 48 id. 418, Decision No. 15,901).  Therefore, had I considered the reply, I would not have considered those portions containing new allegations or exhibits that are not responsive to new material or affirmative defenses set forth in the answer.

Turning to the merits, in-school suspensions and suspensions from extracurricular activities are not governed by Education Law §3214 and do not require a full hearing (Appeal of D.K., 48 Ed Dept Rep 276, Decision No. 15,857; Appeals of C.C. and R.C., 47 id. 289, Decision No. 15,700; Appeal of G.H.L., 46 id. 571, Decision No. 15,598).  Procedures governing in-school suspensions and suspensions from extracurricular privileges need only be fair and give students and parents an opportunity to discuss the conduct being reviewed with the person or body authorized to impose the discipline (Appeal of D.K., 48 Ed Dept Rep 276, Decision No. 15,857; Appeals of C.C. and R.C., 47 id. 289, Decision No. 15,700; Appeal of G.H.L., 46 id. 571, Decision No. 15,598). 

In an appeal to the Commissioner, a petitioner has the burden of demonstrating a clear legal right to the relief requested and the burden of establishing the facts upon which petitioner seeks relief (8 NYCRR §275.10; Appeal of Aversa, 48 Ed Dept Rep 523, Decision No. 15,936; Appeal of Hansen, 48 id. 354, Decision No. 15,884; Appeal of P.M., 48 id. 348, Decision No. 15,882).  The burden is on petitioners to allege and prove facts upon which relief may be granted, not on respondents to rebut conclusory allegations set forth in the petition (Appeal of Wilson, 41 Ed Dept Rep 196, Decision No. 14,663; Appeal of Finkel, 41 id. 74, Decision No. 14,619; Appeal of Keiling, 25 id. 122, Decision No. 11,517).

The record indicates that L.C. met with respondent Gammon to discuss the suspension.  Moreover, although the parties dispute who initiated the contact, the record also indicates that petitioner D.C. and respondent Gammon discussed the social suspension via telephone on December 10, 2013.  Petitioners also availed themselves of the opportunity to appeal to both the superintendent and the board prior to bringing the instant appeal.  The record further indicates that, as part of the appeal process, petitioners met with the superintendent.  As noted above, in the case of a suspension from extracurricular privileges, only minimal due process – fairness and an opportunity to discuss – are required.  On the record before me, I find that the procedures in place were sufficient for a suspension from extracurricular privileges and that petitioners were afforded adequate due process. 

The sole basis of petitioners’ challenge in this regard is respondents’ alleged violations of the code and policies 7330 (“Searches and Interrogations of Students”) and 7420 (“Athletics and Extracurricular Activities”).  As noted above, petitioners claim that respondents violated policies 7330 and 7420 by inviting local law enforcement officials onto school premises and allowing them to question L.C. without a warrant or the consent of her parents.  Petitioners also claim that respondents violated various sections of the code, which requires that the school attempt to notify parents prior to questioning a student and prevent questioning if the parent(s) cannot be reached, that the school principal or another designee be present to supervise any questioning, and that the students be advised of their rights under the law.

I note that the superintendent’s January 20, 2014 letter indicates that Officer Monster’s “failure to ask [petitioners] to be present for [L.C.’s] interview was inconsistent with Board Policy 7330....”  Board Policy 7330 states, in pertinent part:

Generally, police authorities may only interview students on school premises without the permission of the parent/guardian in situations where a warrant has been issued for the student’s arrest (or removal)....  Whenever police wish to question a student on school premises, administration will attempt to notify the student’s parent/guardian.

The superintendent further explains that, as a result of such failure, L.C.’s interview was not considered as part of the determination to suspend her and that “information regarding her presence in a hotel room where underage drinking was occurring is independently verified through reports of others in the room who were interviewed in accordance with the Board Policy 7330.  As such, any information [L.C.] provided to Officer Monster is not necessary to my ultimate determination and will not be considered.”

In this appeal, the relief requested by petitioners is that L.C.’s suspension from extracurricular activities be expunged.  However, petitioners have not carried their burden of establishing that expungement of the extracurricular suspension is the appropriate remedy for respondents’ admitted noncompliance with policy 7330 and the code.  Since it appears from the record that respondent disregarded Officer Monster’s interview and had an independent basis for imposing the suspension from extracurricular privileges, I find that respondents’ violation of policy 7330 does not warrant expungement of the suspension.

Petitioners also claim that respondents failed to comply with policy 7420, which states, in pertinent part:

When notified of alleged student use of alcohol or drugs outside of school or school events:  District personnel will refer the matter to local law enforcement.  District personnel will use only local law enforcement reports or eye witness accounts of a responsible adult to enact the consequences of the policy.  If the alleged student use took place at school or at a school related event off campus, school personnel will investigate like any other Code of Conduct issue (emphasis in original).

Petitioners allege that respondents improperly imposed the extracurricular suspension on L.C. without a report from “local law enforcement” or the eye-witness account of a responsible adult.  Petitioners claim, inter alia, that Officer Monster was not “local law enforcement” because the incident occurred out-of-state, and that because no adult eye-witness account existed, respondents asked Officer Monster to “manufacture” a police report for the school’s “non-law enforcement objectives” of suspending L.C.

Respondents deny these allegations and claim that they acted in accordance with policy 7420 by referring the alleged student use of alcohol outside of school or school events to Officer Monster.  According to respondents, they did not direct the investigation by Officer Monster, nor was he invited onto school premises because, as the School Resource Officer, he was assigned to the school on a daily basis and maintained an office in the building (see Appeal of a Student with a Disability, 48 Ed Dept Rep 98, Decision No. 15,803; judgment granted dismissing petition, Bobolia v. Bd. of Educ., Hendrick Hudson CSD, et al., Sup. Ct., Albany Co., July 15, 2009 [parents’ appeal of short-term suspension on the grounds that the school resource officer, a State Trooper, questioned and searched their son in violation of respondent’s code of conduct was dismissed where the record indicated that the questioning and search of the student by the assistant principal in the presence of the school resource officer was conducted as part of a routine student discipline procedure, not a formal police investigation or interrogation by a police official who entered school property for that purpose]).  Respondents further claim that, as the School Resource Officer, Officer Monster is also permitted by policy 7330 to question students under such circumstances. 

I note that the record indicates that Officer Monster serves the district as a School Resource Officer who, as a result of his investigation, produced a “New York State Incident Report” as the “Reporting Officer” of the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office.  Thus, it appears from the record that he is both a School Resource Officer and a local law enforcement officer, which is common practice.  On this record, therefore, I cannot conclude that respondents’ use of the report produced by Officer Monster following his investigation, which was conducted pursuant to a referral as required by policy 7420, actually violated policy 7420. 

Additionally, based on the record as a whole, petitioners fail to produce sufficient evidence to establish that respondents’ finding that L.C. was present in a hotel room in which students were consuming alcohol, in violation of policy 7420, is arbitrary and capricious.  Petitioners’ primary contention in this regard appears to be that respondents’ decision was improperly based on the “second hand, unsworn, hearsay” accounts of minors.  However, I note that, even in the context of an administrative hearing, which as described above was not required under the circumstances presented here, hearsay evidence is admissible in administrative hearings and hearsay alone may constitute competent and substantial evidence (see Bd. of Educ. of Monticello Cent. School Dist. v. Commissioner of Educ., et al., 91 NY2d 133; Gray v. Adduci, 73 NY2d 741; Appeal of J.A., 48 Ed Dept Rep 118, Decision No. 15,810).  Accordingly, on the record before me, I find no basis upon which to substitute my judgment for that of respondents.

With respect to petitioners’ claim that the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department lacked jurisdiction to investigate the matter, I note that, as stated above, policy 7420 requires a referral to local law enforcement where student use of alcohol or drugs outside of school or school events is alleged.  The policy also requires that the district use only “local law enforcement reports or eye witness accounts of a responsible adult to enact the consequences” of the policy.  Petitioners argue that the term “local law enforcement” as used policy 7420 “clearly refers to authorities local to the incident – i.e., the only law enforcement officials with the authority to investigate the incident, make an arrest, and generate a police report for prosecution purposes” (emphasis in original).  I disagree.  Contrary to petitioners’ conclusory assertions, there is no language in policy 7420 requiring that the report be issued by local law enforcement in the jurisdiction in which the incident occurred, nor does the policy require that the report be issued by local law enforcement with criminal jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the incident.  Therefore, to the extent petitioners attempt to argue that respondents violated policy 7420 because the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department lacked criminal jurisdiction over the matter, I find that such argument lacks merit and, in any event, is irrelevant to the instant appeal.

On this record, policy 7420 appears to be intended to ensure that sufficiently reliable evidence exists before the policy is enforced against students.  Respondents’ interpretation of its policy – that the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department constitutes “local law enforcement” – is rational and reasonable and I find no basis on this record to disturb it (see e.g., Appeal of Barbara D. and James D., Jr., 34 Ed Dept Rep 118, Decision No. 13,252).  To the extent that petitioners attempt raise constitutional issues in this regard, an appeal to the Commissioner is not the proper forum to adjudicate novel issues of constitutional law or to challenge the constitutionality of a statute or regulation (Appeal of C.S., 49 Ed Dept Rep 106, Decision No. 15,971; Appeal of J.A., 48 id. 118, Decision No. 15,810; Appeal of Keller, 47 id. 224, Decision No. 15,677).  A novel claim of constitutional dimension should properly be presented to a court of competent jurisdiction (Appeal of J.A., 48 Ed Dept Rep 118, Decision No. 15,810).

I also note that prior Commissioner’s decisions have upheld the suspension of students for off-campus conduct (Appeal of W.T., 46 Ed Dept Rep 363, Decision No. 15,534; Appeal of C.R., 45 id. 303, Decision No. 15,330) and have upheld suspensions involving conduct that occurred outside of the state (see e.g., Appeals of Doris J. and Irene S., 31 Ed Dept Rep 153, Decision No. 12,602 [upholding students’ exclusion from graduation exercises based on conduct that occurred during class trip to Canada]). 

Finally, it is well settled that the Commissioner has no authority to award monetary damages, costs or reimbursements in an appeal pursuant to Education Law §310 (Application of Kolbmann, 48 Ed Dept Rep 370, Decision No. 15,888; Appeal of S.B., 48 id. 332, Decision No. 15,875).  As such, petitioners’ request for an award of attorneys’ fees is denied.

Although the appeal must be dismissed, I note that the record in this case indicates that confusion exists regarding respondents’ student disciplinary policies and practices, and I encourage respondents to clarify district policies and practices and communications with parents to reduce the likelihood of such confusion. I also remind respondents of their obligation to apply such policies in an objective and consistent manner and to ensure that determinations in student disciplinary proceedings are based on properly introduced and accepted documents and evidence, consistent with all applicable laws, regulations and policies.

In light of this disposition, I need not consider the parties’ remaining contentions.

THE APPEAL IS DISMISSED.

END OF FILE

 

 

[1] I note that respondent Gammon’s affidavit describes a conversation with L.C.’s mother in which he informed her that a social suspension would be imposed on L.C. as a result of finding that she had violated school policy.