The End of Zero Tolerance?

Over the summer, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a decision that forces school districts across the state to take a hard look at their student discipline policies and whether there are sufficient grounds to expel a student. In the case of In the Matter of the Expulsion of A.D., the court reversed a school district’s decision to expel a student for bringing a knife to school. Following a random contraband search, school officials found the knife in student’s purse inside her locker. The student claimed she forgot to take the knife out of her purse before going to school. Despite this excuse, the school district expelled the student, finding that she willfully violated the weapons policy and endangered others, both of which are grounds for expulsion under the Minnesota Pupil Fair Dismissal Act.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the school district holding that the student’s conduct did not meet either of the school district’s stated grounds for expulsion. First, the court of appeals found that the student’s conduct did not amount to a willful violation of the school’s weapons policy because she did not deliberately bring the knife to school and because the school district’s policy was not clear and definite in providing notice to students as to what may constitute a violation. Second, the court held that the student’s conduct did not clearly endanger anyone. The court reasoned that a student’s inadvertent possession of a knife presents only a mere possibility of harm, not the level of probable harm necessary to expel a student.

An appeal of this decision currently is pending before the Minnesota Supreme Court. Until and unless the Court of Appeals’ decision is reversed, school districts are well advised to take certain precautions when enforcing their discipline policies. For example, administrators should review student handbooks and policies to ensure consistency and compliance with the law. Students should be sufficiently trained as to what offenses may constitute a policy violation. Administrators also should conduct a more thorough investigation into the circumstances of the misconduct. Proving only that a student possessed contraband may no longer be sufficient without evidence as to how the student intended to violate school policies. Finally, we no longer can assume that certain conduct in schools, such as possessing a weapon, is dangerous. Rather, school administrators must be able to create a more robust record demonstrating why the student’s conduct is harmful.

Please join Jennifer Earley on at the MSBA Leadership Conference on Thursday, January 14, at 2:30 p.m. in Room M101B to learn more about your school district’s responsibilities and strategies to keep your school safe after this surprising decision.