By Teachers, For Teachers
May 29--Getting an education is a right, but participating in extracurricular activities such as soccer, prom or graduation ceremonies is a privilege that can be taken away, school officials and legal experts said.
"School boards have really broad authority to decide what behavior leads to discipline and what that punishment would be," said Nancy Potter, staff attorney at the Pittsburgh office of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, a public education advocacy group based in Philadelphia. "Schools really do have a lot of latitude when they're doling out suspensions from extracurricular activities."
Such was the case when administrators barred Mitchell Klemencic, 18, a senior at Mt. Lebanon High School, from prom and commencement because police charged him in April with possession of drug paraphernalia. The district suspended Klemencic from extracurricular activities for 30 days because it was his second offense under a school policy that enables administrators to punish students for off-campus transgressions.
Klemencic sought an injunction in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court to stop the district from enforcing his suspension, saying it didn't have the authority to punish him for an incident unrelated to school activities. Judge Judith L.A. Friedman denied his request and praised the district for its policy aimed at curbing alcohol and drug use among students.
Potter said schools can punish students when they commit a violation of the school's code of conduct on school property or during a school-sponsored event; when misbehavior that occurs off school grounds is accompanied by some in-school misconduct and the district "can establish some nexus between the two"; or when the district has a specific policy regarding off-campus incidents, as Mt. Lebanon does.
"To be convicted of something criminally, the proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt. A school district doesn't have that standard of proof. As long as they're following their own disciplinary and state codes, then they can punish regardless of conviction," she said.
Most school officials said they don't specifically deny students access to extracurricular activities as punishment, but students will be barred from any activities that occur during a suspension.
"We don't categorically restrict kids from that unless they themselves create the factors," said Jeff Finch, principal of Hampton High School.
Students who don't fulfill their obligations, like sitting for a detention or returning books, can't buy tickets to the prom, he said. "Until they fulfill those obligations, there are no extras. We don't deny them math class, but you can't go to soccer practice."
Pittsburgh Public Schools spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the district has denied students access to prom and commencement and the punishment is decided on a school-by-school, and individual basis.
As in Hampton and other schools, barring a student from the prom in the city schools can be part of a suspension that keeps a student from participating in all school activities.
"Prom and graduation are privileges, they're not rights," Pugh said.
School solicitors said that districts have requested they draft policies spelling out sanctions for various violations of schools' codes of conduct to combat problems before they happen.
"As drug and alcohol awareness has become more of a communitywide concern, many schools have gone to using this sort of thing as a deterrent," said Bill Andrews, a senior partner at the Forest Hills law firm Andrews & Price, which includes a dozen lawyers representing nearly two dozen school districts and the Allegheny County Intermediate Unit, a branch of the state Department of Education.
Ira Weiss, solicitor for a dozen districts, said districts should have policies in place to thwart bad behavior, but need to be careful not to adopt a policy just because another district has.
"School boards have to really consider what the problem is and how best to address it. This is not a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all analysis. Each district should have their own policy to cover their own problems," Weiss said. "Certainly, we don't want to fall in line because somebody else did it and it sounds like a good idea."