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Decision No. 15,224

Appeal of G.S., on behalf of K.S., from action of the Board of Education of the Seaford Union Free School District regarding student discipline.

Decision No. 15,224

(May 12, 2005)

Alesia & Limmer, LLP, attorneys for petitioner, Scott J. Limmer, Esq., of counsel

Ingerman Smith, L.L.P., attorneys for respondent, Christopher Venator, Esq., of counsel


MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the suspension of her son, K.S., by the Board of Education of the Seaford Union Free School District ("respondent"). The appeal must be dismissed.

During the 2003-2004 school year, K.S. was an eleventh grade student attending Seaford High School. On June 14, 2004, K.S. and several classmates allegedly engaged in a hazing ritual known as "Freshman Friday" that included paddling eighth grade middle school boys on the grounds of a nearby private school.

A superintendent's hearing was held on June 22, 2004, and the hearing officer found K.S. guilty of participating in behavior that resulted in intimidation and physical assault on Seaford eighth grade middle school students. The superintendent informed petitioner by letter dated July 12, 2004, that K.S. would be suspended from school through January 28, 2005, and from participation in extracurricular activities and/or interscholastic athletics through June 30, 2005.

Petitioner appealed the suspension to respondent. Respondent sustained the superintendent's findings, but modified the penalty to limit the suspension from extracurricular activities and/or interscholastic athletics to the same timeframe as the suspension from school, i.e. through January 28, 2005. This appeal ensued. On September 22, 2004, petitioner 's request for interim relief was denied.

Petitioner seeks an order reversing respondent's penalty determination and expunging the suspension from the student's record, or, in the alternative, imposing a punishment of two to four weeks' suspension. Petitioner does not dispute the determination of guilt that her son participated in the paddling incident, but challenges the penalty as excessive. Petitioner argues that her son along with others at most caused an injury that caused one victim to miss school on the morning after the incident so he could see his doctor. Petitioner argues that due to recently publicized incidents in another school district in Nassau County, her son was treated harsher than he would have been previously.

Respondent contends that the penalty is not excessive, considering the gravity of the misconduct and the student's prior disciplinary record.

To the extent petitioner seeks a reduction in the suspension period, the appeal must be dismissed as moot. The Commissioner will only decide 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 B.K. and R.K., 44 Ed Dept Rep 195, Decision No. 15,146; Appeal of A.F., 44 id. 124, Decision No. 15,120; Appeal of D.W., 43 id. 188, Decision No. 14,965). Since K.S. has served the suspension, the request to shorten the suspension period is not meaningful relief that may be granted, and must be dismissed as moot (Appeal of B.K. and R.K., supra; Appeal of A.F., supra; Appeal of D.W., supra).

In cases of student discipline, the sanction imposed must be proportionate to the severity of the offense involved (Appeal of B.K. and R.K., supra; Appeals of J.J., 44 Ed Dept Rep 113, Decision No. 15,115; Appeal of D.C., 43 id. 217, Decision No. 14,976). The test to be applied in reviewing a penalty is whether it is so excessive as to warrant substitution of the Commissioner's judgment for that of the board (Appeal of B.K. and R.K., supra; Appeals of J.J., supra; Appeal of D.C., supra).

In support of its penalty, respondent points to the seriousness of the hazing incident that resulted in injuries to eighth grade students as part of an initiation rite into Seaford High School. The middle school principal testified that he observed "a very large bruise with deep discoloration" on the upper right thigh of one of the eighth grade boys the following day. A photograph of the bruise was entered as an exhibit. The injured student testified that K.S. and three other juniors pulled up in a car as he was walking home with other students around 3:30 p.m. He got in the car after he was told to "just get it over with or it would be worse." He testified that he was taken alone to a nearby private school, told to face a wall, and was hit four times with a wooden paddle that broke as the juniors each took a turn. The middle school principal also testified that he met with the mother of another eighth grader who complained about the incident, and he observed that her son's buttocks "were severely bruised and very, very discolored." A third eighth grade student testified that K.S. was one of a group of eleventh graders who took turns hitting him with a wooden paddle described as "about 18 inches long, 3 inches wide, maybe an inch and a half thick." Respondent also considered K.S.'s prior disciplinary record that included detentions and in-school suspensions for loitering, disrupting class and using obscenities.

The nature of this incident in which intimidation and physical violence was used by high school juniors to "initiate" middle school eighth graders is a threat to both the safety and security of school children. School district officials must take any type of hazing seriously and act to eliminate the practice, as they properly did in this case. Under these circumstances, I find that the penalty is not irrational or unreasonable, and is within respondent's discretion.