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Decision No. 14,466

Appeal of BONNIE PENNETT, on behalf of JOSH DOHERTY, from action of the Board of Education of the Duanesburg Central School District regarding damage to a school bus.

Decision No. 14,466

(September 19, 2000)

Jo Ann E. Coughtry, Esq., attorney for petitioner

Paul M. Callahan, Esq., attorney for respondent

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioner challenges a determination of the Board of Education of the Duanesburg Central School District ("respondent") that she is financially responsible for damage to a school bus allegedly caused by her son, Josh Doherty, and related conduct of school officials and a bus driver. The appeal must be dismissed.

By letter dated March 16, 1999, the principal and assistant principal of Duanesburg Junior-Senior High School notified petitioner that Josh, who was then an 11th grade student, had been referred to their office on March 12 pursuant to a bus incident report. The letter stated that Josh’s bus driver, Carolyn Meyer, accused him of damaging a bus seat and throwing foam removed from the seat around the bus. The letter instructed petitioner to reimburse the school district $45.00 for the cost of repairing the seat. It also notified her that students are entitled to due process, including the right to a fair hearing with school authorities.

Petitioner and her attorney went to the school on March 26, 1999, apparently expecting to meet with the principal, the bus driver, the school attorney and another student allegedly involved in the incident. Instead, only the principal was available. On two occasions after this meeting, the bus driver directed Josh to sit in the front seat of the bus. When he refused to do so, she told him to either sit in the assigned seat or get off the bus. Both times Josh got off the bus and his mother drove him to and from school. This appeal ensued.

Petitioner contends that the bus driver arbitrarily forced Josh to sit in the front seat of the bus and did not impose the same discipline on the other student allegedly involved in the incident. She asserts that the driver has taunted and humiliated her son, and that to protect him from the driver’s improper behavior she has been forced to transport Josh to and from school. She argues that respondent has failed to schedule a due process hearing to address respondent’s claim that she and Josh are liable for the damage to the bus seat. Petitioner further asserts that it was improper for the bus driver to discipline Josh prior to a hearing establishing that he caused the damage.

Petitioner asks me to order respondent to schedule a due process hearing on its claim that she must pay for the damage to the bus seat, direct respondent and the bus driver to refrain from assigning Josh a seat until the hearing is conducted and restrain the driver from taunting, harassing or humiliating Josh.

Respondent argues that bus drivers are responsible for maintaining reasonable behavior on the bus and, as a consequence, may assign students to particular seats when necessary. Respondent also argues that no due process hearing is required regarding seat assignments or bus discipline and that the principal’s meeting with petitioner and Josh on March 26, 1999 was a sufficient opportunity to present their claims.

By letter dated July 13, 2000, respondent advised my Office of Counsel that Josh graduated from Duanesburg Junior-Senior High School on June 23, 2000. The appeal therefore must be dismissed as moot. The Commissioner of Education only decides matters in actual controversy and will not render a decision on a state of facts which no longer exists or which subsequent events have laid to rest (Appeal of Debbie L., 39 Ed Dept Rep 505, Decision No. 14,294; Appeal of Kainz, 38 id. 339, Decision No. 14,049; Appeal of Studley, 38 id. 258, Decision No. 14,028). Where it is impossible for the Commissioner to award any meaningful relief because the person whose rights are to be affected has graduated, the appeal will be dismissed (Appeal of Debbie L., supra).

Because the appeal is dismissed as moot, I need not address the parties’ remaining contentions. I note, however, that to ensure student safety, a board of education must be free to regulate the conduct of students being transported by the district (see, e.g., Appeal of Kearbey, 29 Ed Dept Rep 68, Decision No. 12,225; Appeal of Roach, 19 id. 377, Decision No. 10,176). Nevertheless, a bus driver may not unilaterally suspend a student’s transportation privileges by ordering him to leave the bus. Such action is inconsistent with a board of education’s duty to ensure student safety. Moreover, a student and his or her parent or guardian must be granted an opportunity to appear informally before the individual authorized to impose discipline to discuss the facts underlying the threatened disciplinary action (Appeal of Hale, 30 Ed Dept Rep 26, Decision No. 12,381; Appeal of Roach, supra). I advise respondent to ensure that proper disciplinary procedures are followed in the future.