Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Water Gun Expulsion Another Reminder of Why Schools Must Rethink Discipline - Education Law Prof Blog

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Water Gun Expulsion Another Reminder of Why Schools Must Rethink Discipline

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“Laney” Nichols’ school recently expelled her for an entire year.  Her crime—having a water gun on campus.  One of her male friends brought the water gun to school, but handed it off to Nichols at some point.  Nichols carried it in her backpack before eventually leaving it in the backseat of her car.  Apparently, another student saw the water gun and thought it was real.  When the student alerted school officials, things got serious. 
The school initially suspended her for 10 days—arguably an overreaction itself.  But the school later decided that was not enough because Nichols brought a “firearm” to school.  That, the school reasoned, justified expelling her for a year.  
Nichols’ mother is threatening to sue.  She understands the school has to take all guns seriously because you never know what might happen.  But as soon as school officials touched the water gun, she says they would have known there was absolutely no threat to anyone—save a little water in the eye. 
Interestingly, Nichol’s first claim is gender decimation.  The boy who brought the gun and another who played with it only received in-school suspension.  If accurate, these allegations would raise federal anti-discrimination concerns and could be a winning argument.  The school, however, will likely respond that Nichols’ behavior was more serious in some way or that their evidence regarding the boys was weaker.  While those distinctions may seem minimal in the real word, they are often enough to uphold a school discipline decision. 
To the average observer, Nichol’s second claim— that the water gun is not a firearm under school board policy—may sound like a no-brainer.  The facts seem pretty clear on this score.  The question is whether it matters.  The Supreme Court in Wood v. Strickland rejected two high school students’ attempt to attack their expulsion on technical grounds.  The students had spiked the punch at an after-school event, but argued that the alcohol content was so dilute in the punch that it did not qualify as an alcoholic beverage under state law.  They were probably right.  None of the parents even noticed the alcohol.
The Court, however, was quick to dismiss the case, reasoning that schools have wide discretion in interpreting and applying their own rules. Schools, unlike law enforcement, do not have to spell out every little detail in their rules or follow them precisely.  For that matter, they may not even need rules.  Schools have discretion to discipline Education Law Prof Blog:


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