New Jersey public school districts must act reasonably when disciplining public school students
When it comes to school discipline, a New Jersey School Board has powers of discretion which are given deference, so long as the Board does not act in an arbitrary, unreasonable, or capricious manner. Recently, the Commissioner of Education adopted the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in the case of L.S. o/b/o J.S. […]
When it comes to school discipline, a New Jersey School Board has powers of discretion which are given deference, so long as the Board does not act in an arbitrary, unreasonable, or capricious manner. Recently, the Commissioner of Education adopted the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in the case of L.S. o/b/o J.S. vs. Board of Education of the Township; a case where Petitioners, on behalf of their sixteen- year old student, sought to reduce what Petitioners characterized as an excessive and unwarranted four-day out- of- school suspension imposed by the School Board.
The sixteen- year old was a student was in Honors Mathematics class. During the administration of a test in that class, there was a lock down drill, which prevented the completion of the test. The teacher of the class informed the students in the class that they would be able to complete the test on another date. The teacher locked the incomplete tests in a file cabinet in the classroom. The next two days that the class met, which were also the last two days of school before winter break, the teacher was out sick and the students in the class had a substitute teacher. The substitute teacher had a lesson plan left by the regular classroom teacher. That lesson plan left for the substitute did not mention completing the test, nor did the teacher ever instruct the substitute to administer the final portion of the test. Some of the students in the class, by their own admission, took the test from the file cabinet, unbeknownst to the teacher, and worked on it without the teacher’s permission, while the teacher was out sick. The students went on winter break, and after return from winter break, the classroom teacher advised that she would give the students time to finish the incomplete test. The teacher was subsequently notified by a student in another class that cheating allegedly occurred while she was out sick. After the school launched an investigation, students in the class came forward, including the concerned sixteen- year old student, and admitted to taking and working on the test without permission. The charge of cheating, in this School District, could result an out- of- school suspension of up to ten days. All students involved were given the same penalty of a four day, out- of- school suspension and notified of same.
Both the ALJ and the Commissioner considered the authority of the School Board to impose the four- day suspension and the appropriateness of the penalty. The ALJ cited N.J.S.A 18A:37-2 which establishes the authority of local school boards to impose discipline upon students. “Any pupil who is guilty of open defiance of the authority of any teacher or person having authority over him…shall be liable to punishment and to suspension or expulsion from school.” N.J.S.A. 18A:37-2. The ALJ determined that the School Board’s finding that the sixteen- year old student cheated and the board’s decision to impose a four day out- of- school suspension was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, and that the petitioner failed to prove otherwise, citing the legal standard originally established in the seminal case of Thomas v. Morris Twp. Bd. Of Educ. 89 N.J.Super. 327, 332 (App.Div. 1965), aff’d 46 N.J. 581 (1966).
At the OAL hearing, the Petitioners produced no witnesses to attack the accounts or credibility of any of the witnesses that testified at the hearing, nor did they contend that the concerned student did not cheat. The student was never produced to refute the accuracy or voluntary nature of the student’s prior confession to cheating. It was never insinuated that the student’s confession to cheating was coerced. Rather, Petitioners argued that the student should’ve been charged with another type of infraction and/or that the penalty imposed should be lessened or expunged. The ALJ also recognized that School Boards are required to maintain discipline in school, which requires balancing between this recognized obligation and the individual rights of the students to be disciplined. The ALJ concluded that the School Board’s discretionary powers must be given deference so long as the Board did not act in an arbitrary, unreasonable or capricious manner. The ALJ reasoned that rather than imposing the maximum penalty, the Board’s imposing a lesser discipline of a short term, four- day suspension was reasonable. The Commissioner of Education concurred with the findings and conclusions of the ALJ.