Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Recent State Supreme Court Decision Signals that Momentum Continues to Build Against Zero Tolerance Policies by Jason Nance

In re Expulsion of A.D. describes the expulsion of a student in southern Minnesota for accidentally bringing a small pocketknife to school. A school liaison officer found the knife while conducting a random search for controlled substances using a drug-sniffing dog. When the dog alerted the officer to stop at A.D’s locker, he searched it. Although he did not find any controlled substances, he did find a 3-inch folding pocketknife in a purse hanging in the locker.

The principal and officer then called A.D. into the principal’s office for questioning. They asked A.D. if she knew why they had called her into the principal’s office. A.D. responded that she believed it was because she brought a pocketknife to school. She then explained that she had used the pocketknife at her boyfriend’s family farm the previous weekend to cut twine on the hay bales. She also explained that she normally removes the pocketknife from her purse before leaving home, but that day she had forgotten that the knife was in her purse until someone announced that the school was on lock-down. The principal informed A.D. that she believed that A.D. was telling the truth and was fully cooperating with them. Nevertheless, under the school district’s weapons policy, the principal recommended to the superintendent that A.D. be expelled for the rest of the school year. Under Minnesota’s Pupil Fair Dismissal Act, a school district is authorized to suspend or expel a student for a “willful violation of any reasonable school board regulation.” The school district’s weapons policy prohibited a student from possessing a weapon while at school, including all knives and blades.

A.D. challenged her expulsion under the Minnesota statute, arguing that she did not “willfully violate the district’s weapons policy” because she did not make a deliberate, conscious choice to bring the pocketknife to school. The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with A.D. and overturned the expulsion.  According to the Court, “willful conduct is not the same thing as a willful violation,” and the Act “does not allow for the punishment of a student who engages in willful acts without intending to violate the policy.” It determined that a school district could punish A.D. for bringing a knife on school grounds in some other form, but the Act prohibited the district from suspending or expelling A.D. unless it could demonstrate that she “intentionally violated the policy.” 

This case was a big win for those that oppose zero-tolerance policies in schools, especially in light of the fact that the Minnesota Association for School Administrators, the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals, and the Minnesota School Boards Association submitted amicus briefs in favor of the school district’s decision to expel A.D.

While this case may have limited applicability outside of the state of Minnesota because of its reliance on a Minnesota statute, it signals that momentum continues to build against the use of zero tolerance policies in schools. As I explain here, school’s reliance on overly-punitive measures such as zero-tolerance policies, suspensions, expulsions, random searches of students, and law enforcement officers harms students’ interests in the long run because such measures are not associated with positive climates needed to establish safe environments conducive to learning. Rather, there are other evidence-based methods that schools should implement to more effectively create safe learning environments for children. 


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