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A Deer Season Debacle

Kacie Kefgen

By Kacie Kefgen, MASB Assistant Director of Labor Relations and Legal Services

DashBoard, Nov. 25, 2015

A Michigan high school senior, Hunter Hugh, spends much of the Thanksgiving break hunting with friends, Eagle-Eyed Ella and Forgetful Fred. On Sunday evening, when the group is ready to head home, they climb into Hugh’s truck, with Fred taking the backseat in the crew cab. Hugh drops Ella off first, then drives to Fred’s house where Fred unloads most his hunting equipment from Hugh’s truck bed and says goodbye. Unbeknownst to Hugh, Fred forgets to take his hunting knife with him from the backseat when unloading his hunting gear. Hugh drives home and unloads his hunting equipment from the truck bed before going to sleep.

Hugh wakes up the next morning and drives to school. He pulls into a parking spot and notices the high school principal standing nearby, supervising traffic. Hugh gets out of his truck, opens the back door and a mountain of debris spills onto the ground, including Fred’s hunting knife. Kneeling down to help, the high school principal notices the knife and promptly tells Hugh to head to her office.

Should the school district expel Hugh?

Michigan Statute Says

Michigan statute requires that, “[i]f a pupil possesses in a weapon-free school zone a weapon that constitutes a dangerous weapon . . . the school board, or the designee of the school board on behalf of the school board, shall expel the pupil from the district permanently . . .” MCL 380.1311(2). The statute continues:

. . . a school board is not required to expel a pupil for possessing a weapon if the pupil establishes in a clear and convincing manner at least 1 of the following:

(a) The object or instrument possessed by the pupil was not possessed by the pupil for use as a weapon, or for direct or indirect delivery to another person for use as a weapon.

(b) The weapon was not knowingly possessed by the pupil . . .

The Sixth Circuit Says

In 2000, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a similar knife case where the plaintiff student’s friend left a knife in the glovebox of the plaintiff’s car (Seal v. Morgan, 229 F3d 567 (CA 6 2000)). The knife was discovered by a school official while on campus. The student claimed that he did not know the knife was in his car. Without considering the question of whether or not the student knew the knife was in the car, the school district expelled the student, citing its zero tolerance policy about weapons on campus.

The student challenged the expulsion in court, arguing that his due process rights were violated because the district did not consider whether he knew the knife was in the car. The Sixth Circuit agreed that a school district must consider whether a student knowingly possessed a weapon before deciding whether to punish them for possession. Otherwise, the district violates a student’s substantive due process rights because there is “no rational relationship between the punishment and the offense.” The Court pointed out that a student could not use a weapon that he did not know about, so it would not be rational to punish a student for possession without that knowledge.

Takeaways

Zero tolerance policies, while they may seem simple to apply in theory, can be tricky to craft and apply in practice.

Boards should take care to adopt policies that reflect the requirements of both Michigan statute and case law to avoid liability created in student discipline cases. Having counsel review a policy is critical to ensure that it complies with the law.

Administrators should review policies and procedures before meting out punishments or making recommendations to their school boards.

Want to Know More?

Consider having one of the MASB attorneys come to your district for a student discipline workshop. Administrators and board members will learn about suspensions, expulsions, due process and more in an interactive format. Contact us at laborrelations@masb.org or 517.327.5900.

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