Last month, the Interim Commissioner of Education upheld a local board of education’s determination that a student violated the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act and clarified that the board has discretion to make sometimes subjective determinations in harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) hearings.
The matter, J.C. v. Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School District, involved an altercation that occurred in late 2017 or early 2018 at the home of one of the students. In the hearing, the board found one male student allegedly removed the pants of another male student while a third student held the victim down. The board also found that the aggressor also removed his own pants while on top of the victim. A picture of the incident was circulated among students the following September. As a result, the victim was teased and harassed, and his parents filed an HIB complaint.
Following an investigation into the incident, the board determined 1) that the events substantially interfered with the rights of the victim and interfered with the orderly operation of the schools given the number of students that were involved; 2) a reasonable person would perceive that the aggressor’s actions were motivated by gender, and 3) a reasonable person would know that the actions would cause the victim physical or emotional harm. An administrative law judge upheld the board’s determinations and forwarded the matter to the commissioner for a final decision.
Before the commissioner, the parents of the aggressor disputed factual findings and argued that the judge improperly ignored several disputed issues. Specifically, the parents argued that during the investigation, a witness to the incident indicated that he observed no inappropriate conduct by the aggressor. However, a few days later, the witness changed his story and reported that he did see the aggressor expose himself. The parents also argued that the board’s decision was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable because the board’s determination that the incident was motivated by gender was based on the unfounded assumption that the victim was gay. Moreover, according to the parents, the victim’s statement that he suffered no emotional distress undermined the boards’ determination that the victim suffered physical or emotional harm. Finally, the parents argued that the board had no authority to regulate conduct that occurred in a private home.
Upon review, the commissioner initially reiterated the long–held principal that “[w]hen a local board of education acts within its discretionary authority, its decision is entitled to a presumption of correctness and will not be disturbed unless there is an affirmative showing that the decision was ‘patently arbitrary, without rational basis or induced by improper motives.’ ” The commissioner added that the parents failed to demonstrate that the board’s determination was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. The commissioner noted that the while the evidence may have left room for two opinions, the initial witness statement was not sufficient to demonstrate that the board’s decision to rely on the witness’ latter statement was arbitrary. In order for the commissioner to overturn the board’s decision, the commissioner would have had to incorrectly substitute his own judgement for that of the board.
The commissioner then explained that the HIB statute requires an analysis of how the actor’s motivation is perceived and whether that perception is reasonable. It does not require an analysis of the actual motivation of the actor. Accordingly, the board conclusion that a reasonable person could perceive the aggressor’s actions as being motivated by gender was not arbitrary.
Finally, the commissioner noted that where HIB allegations arise in off-campus conduct, there must be a “nexus to a student’s physical or emotional safety, security, and well-being and a material and substantial interference with the operation of the school in order to impose a consequence . . . .”
However, the commissioner never applied the regulatory definition to the matter at hand because the student was no longer enrolled in the district. Nevertheless, the commissioner found that the board was not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable in investigating conduct that occurred off school grounds and finding that it met the definition of HIB.
For more information on this matter, board members may wish to discuss this decision with the board attorney or may call the Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.