In a July 24 ruling, a three judge appellate panel upheld a previous decision that a school board exceeded its authority by adopting a broad policy that would restrict students from participating in sports and extracurricular activities for off-campus misconduct. In the precedent-setting opinion, G.D.M. and T.A.M., v. Board of Education of the Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School District, the court found that the board's policy was so "overbroad" that a student could conceivably be suspended from participating in extracurricular activities for infractions such as littering.
Under the Ramapo school board's policy, students could lose the privilege of participating in sports and extracurricular activities if accused of using alcohol and drugs off-campus after school, and if charged with any "violation of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, and/or applicable municipal codes or ordinances." The policy provided students and their parents with the opportunity to address any alleged violation at a conference with school administrators, who would then determine whether the student violated the policy.
The parents of a high school senior had challenged the policy as violating state regulations, and also on constitutional grounds. Former Acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks determined that the policy violated State Board of Education regulations.
Revised Policy The commissioner emphasized the difference between a district's broad authority to discipline students for conduct that occurs in school or at a school event, and the more restricted authority to control conduct occurring off-school grounds. She interpreted state regulations as permitting a district to regulate off-campus conduct only if necessary for the safety, security and well-being of students, staff or school grounds, and if the conduct substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school. She determined that the board's policy encompassed too many potential conduct violations that would not be connected with safety or discipline, and directed the school board to revise its policy. Acting Commissioner Hendricks did not address the constitutional arguments presented by the parties.
The Ramapo school board revised its policy, which was upheld by the commissioner after the parents challenged it in a separate proceeding. Meanwhile, the board challenged the commissioner's ruling to the Appellate Division. The Appellate Division agreed to hear the board's appeal in light of the importance of the issues and the probability that legal questions could again arise. Also participating in the case as amici curiae, or "friend of the court," were NJSBA, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Haddonfield Board of Education, and the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA).
Extracurriculars as Privilege During the appellate court proceedings, the Ramapo school board argued that the commissioner misconstrued the state regulations, which separately address a board's authority to deny participation in extracurricular activities, and that she ignored decades of case law that recognize the diminished protection afforded to extracurricular activities because participation in these is a privilege, not a right. The board argued that there is a significant difference between the loss of a privilege to participate in voluntary extracurricular activities, and the suspension or expulsion of a student from school attendance.
The board, supported by NJSBA, NJASA and Haddonfield Board of Education, argued that by failing to appreciate the legal significance of this dichotomy, the commissioner ignored strong legislative policies that favor school boards taking a proactive approach to address student misconduct away from school grounds – and, in particular, illegal drug and alcohol use.
Overbroad Policy Writing for the court, Presiding Judge Jose L. Fuentes concluded that the plain language of the state regulations "amply support" the commissioner's interpretation. He wrote that the policy was overbroad and exceeded the authority conferred on boards of education by state statutes and regulations, suggesting that under the policy, "a student could be suspended from participating in extracurricular activities as the result of receiving a citation for littering on a municipal sidewalk."
Implications Under the ruling, a board may not adopt a policy that imposes consequences, including restrictions on extracurricular activities, for conduct violations not related to school activities that occur away from school grounds, unless there is a substantial nexus between the student's conduct and the safe and orderly operation of the school. The conduct must "materially and substantially interfere" with the discipline necessary to operate the school.
The school board has directed its attorney to request the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal. The Supreme Court has the discretion to hear cases that present issues of general public importance.