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Decision No. 15,225

Appeal of J.W., on behalf of B.W., from action of the Board of Education of the Seaford Union Free School District regarding student discipline.

Decision No. 15,225

(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, B.W., by the Board of Education of the Seaford Union Free School District ("respondent"). The appeal must be dismissed.

During the 2003-2004 school year, B.W. was an eleventh grade student attending Seaford High School. On June 14, 2004, B.W. 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 B.W. guilty of participating in behavior that resulted in intimidation and physical assault on Seaford eighth grade middle school students. The superintendent adopted the hearing officer's recommendation and suspended B.W. from school through January 28, 2005 and from participation in extracurricular activities and/or interscholastic athletics through June 30, 2005.

Petitioner appealed the suspension. 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 does not appeal respondent's determination of guilt, but seeks a determination that the penalty is excessive. Petitioner contends that the penalty is disproportionate to the offense and that a punishment of two to four weeks' suspension should be imposed. Alternatively, petitioner seeks a reversal of respondent's determination and expungement of B.W.'s record. Petitioner argues that B.W., along with others, at most injured one victim, causing him to miss school on the morning after the incident so he could see his doctor.

Respondent contends that the penalty is not excessive in light of the seriousness of the incident, in which several students were struck with wooden objects used as paddles. Respondent contends that an eighth grade student suffered severely bruised buttocks as a result of this hazing incident and identified B.W. as one of his attackers. Respondent contends that the penalty of a five-month suspension is not disproportionate to the offense, considering B.W.'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 B.W. 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 bruises on two different eighth grade students the morning of June 15, 2004. He reported meeting with the mother of one of the injured boys and interviewing five eighth graders who were paddled in the "Freshmen Friday" incident. One of the eighth grade students testified that B.W. and seven other juniors were present when he and another student were hit from behind four times with a paddle. He testified that when a third boy started to cry and his face was turning red, he was not hit more than twice. Petitioner testified that this initiation has been going on for at least 15 years and that students told her four or five years ago that the paddles were made in the Seaford wood shop during school.

The high school principal testified that when he heard a rumor on Friday, June 11, 2004, that "Freshman Friday" was going to occur at the middle school, he notified police and drove to the middle school. He reported seeing B.W. and four other juniors run across the baseball field. He testified that B.W. was verbally abusive, belligerent and disobeyed a request to leave the grounds. Respondent also considered B.W.'s prior disciplinary record of suspensions and more than a hundred detentions for, interalia, using profanities, disrupting classes, threatening a teacher and leaving school grounds.

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 officials must take any type of hazing seriously and act to eliminate the practice. Under these circumstances, I find that the penalty is not irrational or unreasonable and is within respondent's discretion.

I note that the school administration in this case appropriately considered these hazing activities serious offenses that cannot be tolerated. The high school principal is to be commended for intervening when he learned what was about to take place. Hazing is a growing problem and adults must make clear to students through words and actions that there is no place for such behavior.