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Decision No. 14,126

Appeal of G.L. and K.L., on behalf of R.L., from action of the Board of Education of the Thousand Islands Central School District regarding student discipline.

Decision No. 14,126

(May 8, 1999)


Conboy, McKay, Bockman & Kendall, LLP, attorneys for petitioners, David B. Geurtsen, Esq., of counsel


O'Hara and O'Connell, PC, attorneys for respondent, Timothy D. Dietz, Esq., of counsel


MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioners appeal the decision of the Board of Education of the Thousand Islands Central School District ("respondent") to affirm their daughter's suspension. The appeal must be dismissed.

During the 1997-1998 school year, R.L. was a ninth grade student at the Thousand Islands High School. On the morning of February 17, 1998, while riding to school on one of respondent's buses, R.L. was observed by several witnesses handing a plastic bag containing green, leafy material to another student just before leaving the bus. There is some question as to whether R.L. brought the material from home and gave it to the other student prior to leaving the bus, or whether the other student asked R.L. to hold it for him, which she agreed to do, but then changed her mind and gave it back to him before leaving the bus. Later that day, a third student was caught with the same or similar material, which he claimed to have received from the same student R.L. had dealt with on the bus.

On March 3, R.L. was questioned by the high school principal, and admitted that she had possessed marijuana on the school bus on February 17, claiming that she was only holding it because the other student asked her to. She was suspended effective March 4, and a superintendent's hearing was conducted on March 6. The superintendent issued his written decision on March 18, finding that R.L. had been in possession of marijuana in violation of school rules, as charged, and suspending her until June 24, 1998. (The superintendent's decision further stated that he would consider re-admitting her no earlier than June 1, 1998, based upon her academic effort and no further involvement with controlled substances; by letter dated June 2, 1998, respondent's counsel advised my Office of Counsel that R.L. had been invited to return to school on May 26, "but has chosen to continue her home-schooling program.")

Petitioners appealed the determination to respondent board, which heard the matter on March 30. Respondent rendered a written decision upholding the superintendent's determination on April 3, 1998, and this appeal ensued. By letter dated May 19, 1998, I denied petitioners' request for a stay.

Petitioners argue that they were not given adequate notice of the potential penalties for the offense charged against their daughter and that they were given insufficient time to prepare for the superintendent's hearing. They further assert that the written statement given by R.L. on March 3, admitting that she possessed "pot," was made under improper duress and should be suppressed. They argue that there was no real proof that the material actually was marijuana and that the proof introduced at the hearing was legally insufficient. Finally, petitioners argue that the penalty imposed was excessive.

Petitioners argue that the school handbook does not provide adequate notice that possession of marijuana can result in a substantial suspension. However, on page 33, the handbook states that a "Class A" offense, including possession of drugs, can result in a superintendent's hearing. On the previous page, page 32, the handbook makes clear that the superintendent has the authority to take disciplinary action "up to the suspension of the student for the balance of the school year." I therefore find that the handbook provides adequate notice of the potential penalty for a student's possession of marijuana on school property.

Petitioners also claim that they were not given sufficient time to prepare for the March 6, 1998, hearing. While petitioners claim not to have received the superintendent's March 4 notice until March 5, respondent alleges that notice was given by telephone on March 3, and petitioners have not contradicted that contention. I therefore find that notice was adequate (Appeal of DeRosa, 36 Ed Dept Rep 336). Petitioners also claim that they were "led to believe" that it would be more advantageous to proceed with the hearing than to seek an adjournment, but provide no facts supporting this belief.

Petitioners also object to the use of an admission, handwritten and signed by their daughter, which they claim was obtained through duress, because they were not present when their daughter wrote and signed the statement. However, there is no requirement that a parent be present when a student is questioned by school personnel, and similar documents have been accepted in previous Commissioner's decisions (Appeal of Pronti, 31 Ed Dept Rep 259; Matter of Roach, 19 id. 377). The record also lacks any specific proof of duress or intimidation on the part of any school official.

With respect to the proof necessary to sustain the finding of guilt, petitioners' daughter's statement of March 3, 1998, is sufficient. In an administrative proceeding such as this, neither proof beyond a reasonable doubt nor corroboration is necessary. Petitioners' daughter was accused of possessing marijuana, and she admitted doing so. Such proof has been found sufficient in previous Commissioner's decisions (see, e.g., Appeal of Eddy, 36 Ed Dept Rep 359; Appeal of Pronti, supra; Matter of Roach, supra).

Finally, I do not find the penalty excessive. In cases of suspension, the sanction imposed must be proportionate to the severity of the offense involved (Appeal of Alexander, 36 Ed Dept Rep 160; Appeal of Durkee, 20 id. 94). The test to be applied in reviewing the penalty in the case of student discipline is whether the penalty imposed was so excessive as to warrant substitution of the Commissioner's judgment for that of the board of education (Appeal of Forestiero, 34 Ed Dept Rep 592; Appeal of Homick, 34 id. 150).

I find that the penalty, although severe, is not irrational or unreasonable (Appeal of Uebel, 38 Ed Dept Rep 375; Appeal of Cynthia and Robert W., 37 id. 437; Appeal of Lutes, 25 id. 396), and is within respondent's discretion.

Finally, I have not considered the undated, unsworn statement of a New York State trooper who rendered an opinion that the material possessed by petitioners' daughter was in fact marijuana. The trooper did not testify at the hearing, nor was his statement introduced at that proceeding, and I have not considered it as part of the record before me.