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Decision No. 15,227

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

Decision No. 15,227

(May 12, 2005)

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


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

During the 2003-2004 school year, M.M. was an eleventh grade student attending Seaford High School. On June 14, 2004, M.M. 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 July 9, 2004 and the hearing officer found M.M. 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 22, 2004 that M.M. 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 28, 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 was present when others paddled one victim to the point of injury and, at worst, participated in paddling a second victim that caused some discomfort. 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 its disciplinary determination is rationally based. Respondent contends that there was substantial eyewitness and documentary evidence to support the determination of his complicity and direct involvement, including detailed testimony from an eighth grade student who was injured during the incident. Respondent contends that the penalty is not excessive considering the gravity of the misconduct and the student's long disciplinary history.

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 M.M. 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. One of the eighth grade students who was injured testified that he learned in sixth grade that "Freshman Friday" meant that "eighth grade students going into ninth grade get beat up by the eleventh graders." He testified that he and three other eighth graders were told to go down a stairwell and put their hands against the wall. He reported being hit from behind with a foot-long belt holder, a racquetball racket and a broken 17-inch piece of wood. He identified M.M. as one of the juniors at the bottom of the stairs. He also testified that he was told, "don't tell your mom or dad." He further testified that he couldn't sit on the toilet for two to four days and a photograph of his bruised buttocks was entered as an exhibit at the hearing.

Another eighth grader testified that he was hit by M.M., and a photograph of his bruised thigh was entered as an exhibit at the hearing. Respondent also considered M.M.'s extensive disciplinary record, including suspensions and over a hundred detentions for, interalia, smoking, cutting classes, leaving school grounds and using profanities.

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, as they properly did here. Under these circumstances, I find that the penalty is not irrational or unreasonable, and is within respondent's discretion.