A junior at Haddam Killingworth High School has sued the school board over its decision to expel him for an entire year for bringing alcohol on school grounds on a Saturday night, when school wasn’t in session. His lawyer seeks to expand on a state Supreme Court decision, which ruled that some acts performed “off school grounds” do not interfere with the educational process. If the courts agree, then school districts across the state may be relieved of the burden of disciplining students for their actions when they are not at school. Is that a good thing?
A junior at Haddam Killingworth High School has sued the school board over its decision to expel him for an entire year for bringing alcohol on school grounds on a Saturday night, when school wasn’t in session. Kathleen Hedrick, the mother of Timothy Hedrick, filed the suit in Middletown Superior Court in April, claiming Regional School District No. 17 violated her son’s constitutional rights.The defendants, through their attorney, Linda Yoder of Shipman & Goodwin in Hartford, petitioned April 22 to have the case moved to federal court. Yoder did not return a call requesting comment on any aspect of the case.Hedrick’s lawyer, Ronald Piombino of Madison, seeks to expand on a state Supreme Court decision, in which the court ruled some acts performed “off school grounds” did not interfere with the educational process. In that case, Kyle Packer v. Thomaston Board of Education, the high court found that the school should not have expelled a football star for being arrested off-campus for selling drugs because the violation was not “seriously disruptive to the school environment,” Piombino said in a recent phone interview. The attorney plans to use a similar argument, because Hedrick’s infraction occurred when school was not in session. If the courts agree with him, then school districts across the state may be relieved of the burden of disciplining students for their actions when they are not at school or after school hours. But most school boards would likely not support this, said former school board member Nick Caruso, who is now a spokesman for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. By not punishing students who misbehave – in or out of school – other students would get the impression that the school condones such behavior, Caruso said. Moreover, it would leave many students with very little discipline, since they often don’t get it at home, he contended. “Kids can’t learn in a disruptive environment,” Caruso said. “If parents aren’t eliminating the disruptions, then schools have to. … School boards have to wrestle with sending a message to the [other students in the] school district.” There are some cases, such as a student shooting off a gun at school, where a school board should be allowed to expel a student permanently, Caruso believed.But many unfair expulsions go unchallenged, said attorney Winona Zimberlin, a specialist in representing families in such cases. Many families are “outraged” by school board rulings, she said, but they usually do not take legal action because it is too expensive. “This is not surprising-it happens all the time,” she said of Hedrick’s situation. “…There are hundreds of expulsions every year. School boards know they will rarely be challenged. [The Hedrick case involved] a typical expulsion. That was not any more egregious than any others I have seen.“As so-called “zero-tolerance policies” become more common, school boards have undertaken more expulsions for relatively minor infractions, Zimberlin said. Most of the time, hearings are held before the family can secure an attorney, and the resulting punishments are “extreme and strict,” the attorney said. Parents often don’t even discuss the ruling with others because they are embarrassed, she added.That was not the case with the Hedrick family.Assistant Principal Connie Bombaci called Hedrick into her office and questioned him about his alleged possession of alcohol on school grounds two days prior, according to the complaint. Hedrick and a few friends had been at the school when a police officer discovered them, made them dispose of their beer, and issued them a ticket for simple trespass, Piombino said. Hedrick “was interrogated by the defendant Connie Bombaci and the defendant Jill MacDiarmid [another assistant principal] for a period of approximately 3 1/2 hours in a darkened room, and under extremely coercive environment,” the lawsuit says, “without notification to his parents, without his parents being present, without the opportunity to use the sanitary facilities, and without being provided the opportunity for food he could consume.” The assistant principals eventually brought the student an apple and a tuna sandwich, Piombino said, but Hedrick does not eat tuna, so he could only consume the apple and drink some milk they provided. “They were dealing with a minor,” the attorney said. “They did this all before they called the parents, they at first gave him no lunch, at one point they dragged him out to the car and searched it. They didn’t find anything, of course. They kept him isolated for three and a half hours. It’s just inexcusable.” That was George Hedrick’s first complaint, the father said in a phone interview, and he became even more concerned when he found out the administrators had each of the four boys in separate rooms and they were trying to get the students to tell on each other and to name the people who took drugs in the school. His son was suspended for 10 days, during which the principal, Chuck Macunas, told the parents in a meeting that a hearing had to take place before the Board of Education, but that it was just a formality and it was not necessary for them to get an attorney, Hedrick said.“He kind of blew it off, like it was not a big deal,” the father said of Macunas, who had been a teacher of Timothy’s. “I understood that he would have to do some community service or some in-school drug and alcohol counseling. … I never thought they would be this heavy-handed.“But a week after the Region 17 Board of Education hearing on the matter, held Feb. 8, a letter to Kathleen and George Hedrick notified them that their son was to be expelled for 180 days. The board didn’t even reference their son by name. “On January 15, 2005,” the letter reads, “the Student 020805 violated Board policy 5131.6; and/or endangered persons or property, and/or was seriously disruptive of the educational process; and, thus, is an expellable offense,” the letter read, adding that Hedrick could have reduced his expulsion to 90 days if he satisfied a list of six conditions. Hedrick’s father did acknowledge his son had six previous “referrals” for various minor infractions in school, such as swearing in the hallway, but said he had not received a detention for any of them. The father expressed concern about how the board assigned punishment for each of the students, saying they all suffered a different consequence for the same infraction: the senior was kicked out of school (allowed to graduate but not to take part in graduation) and the other two students were expelled for different durations less than Hedrick’s expulsion.The day after the hearing, many of Hedrick’s classmates protested by wearing T-shirts with the accused’s names on them – but the school would not let the T-shirts be worn, the father said. Administrators also called meetings with the classes to discuss the situation, Hedrick said, but the meetings got out of hand. At the meeting with juniors and seniors, when a student asked if he could be called in a questioned for three hours without his parents notified and an administrator answered yes, the crowd blew up.“They went crazy,” Hedrick said. “The kids went ballistic.“Timothy, a 17-year-old soccer and baseball player, completed all of the required conditions and returned to school after 90 days, but his father said he does not see why it was necessary for his son to submit to drug testing and have drug counseling for a violation that involved beer. He noted that he punished his son as well.In part, the lawsuit alleged that the length of the punishment “is grossly disproportionate to the acts alleged to have been committed,” but it also claims that the defendants’ “actions were gratuitous, illegal, improper and unrelated to
any lawful act,” and that they were “deliberately indifferent” to Hedrick’s constitutional rights. Specifically, the Region 17 board failed to issue a Finding of Fact – a statement outlining the circumstances of the alleged offense and the student’s disciplinary history, if applicable – at the conclusion of the expulsion hearing, which is required by statute, Piombino said. Attorney Piombino said settlement discussions have taken place.