School Board Notes • January 29, 2013 • Vol. XXXVI No. 25

Supreme Court Refuses to Hear '24/7' Policy Case

The state Supreme Court has declined to hear a case involving the Ramapo Indian Hills School Board’s appeal of a ruling that struck down a policy that would bar students from participating in sports and extracurricular activities for off-campus misconduct.

The Supreme Court’s denial of certification on Jan. 16 means that the earlier ruling, entered last year by the appellate court, is final. In that ruling, the appellate court found the district’s policy to be so “overbroad” that students could conceivably be disciplined for minor off-campus infractions such as littering.

The case arose when the parents of a high school senior brought a legal challenge to the so-called "24-7" policy, claiming it violated state regulations and provisions of the state constitution.

Addressed Off-Campus Acts The school board defended its policy, under which students could lose the privilege of participating in sports and extracurricular activities if they used alcohol or 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.

Then-Acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks determined that State Board of Education regulations allow a school board to regulate off-campus conduct, but 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 she directed the school board to revise its policy.

The Ramapo Indian Hills school board revised its policy, which was upheld by the education commissioner after the parents challenged it in a separate proceeding.

Extracurriculars as Privilege  Meanwhile, the board went to the Appellate Division Superior Court to pursue its challenge of the commissioner’s ruling that struck down its original policy. During the appellate court proceedings, the Ramapo Indian Hills 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 was supported in its arguments by NJSBA, the Haddonfield Board of Education, and the New Jersey Association of School Administrators as amici curiae, or "friend of the court."  The board and amici argued that 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 Last July, the three-judge appellate panel ruled 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, that the board’s policy was “overbroad.”

Writing for the court, Presiding Judge Jose L. Fuentes concluded that the plain language of the state regulations "amply support" the acting commissioner’s interpretation. He wrote that the policy was overbroad and exceeded the school board’s authority, and suggested 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.