The family of a Belgrade High School student who was expelled in April has appealed the case to the state Office of Public Instruction, accusing Belgrade School District officials of stonewalling the family and railroading their child out of the district.
District officials say their action was appropriate and that the school board is prepared to take the battle to court, if necessary.
The board expelled the student April 13 after high school officials said he sexually harassed another student March 24, according to the complaint.
Because the student is a minor, his identity has been withheld by school and county officials. The Gallatin County Superintendent of Schools released a copy of the family’s appeal, with identifying information redacted, after the Belgrade News requested the document and the Gallatin County Attorney reviewed the request.
Belgrade Chief of Police E.J. Clark declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but said charges were filed against him and the case is being handled by Gallatin County Youth Court and Gallatin County attorney.
The family’s appeal of the expulsion was filed with Gallatin County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ellen Fitzgerald. She, in turn, forwarded it to the Montana Office of Public Instruction for a determination of who has jurisdiction to hear the appeal, according to Ann Gilkey, OPI chief legal counsel.
The family is accusing school officials of violating district policy and withholding the facts that led up to the student’s expulsion, according to the appeal. The family also said the student has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and the school failed to properly accommodate his disability.
The family pressed Vice Principal Russ McDaniel for information about the alleged sexual harassment charges, according to the appeal.
“On April 2, 2010, I received a letter stating that (the student) had committed an act of sexual harassment against a student on March 24, 2010,” the family said. “I told Mr. McDaniel that this concerned me because (the student) was not at school that day since he was under suspension.“I told McDaniel that this inaccurate statement made it even more pressing for me to receive the disclosure regarding the allegations against (the student) that caused his suspension,” the plaintiff added. “I was told that I was not entitled to see them.”
The family said the school board heard the matter despite pleas to delay the expulsion hearing until the information was revealed, according to the complaint. The request was denied.
Since the expulsion, the family still has not obtained the records in the case, according to the complaint. The family consulted with both OPI and Debra Silk, an attorney with the Montana School Boards Association, which represents the school board. Both advised the family that the district would comply with the request for records as long as a copy of the school policy concerning due process and school records was presented to the administration.
But they didn’t, the family said.
“I visited with vice-principal McDaniel. I told him that I was instructed by OPI legal staff to submit a copy of school policy regarding due process and records release along with my request to receive (the student’s) school records and disclosure regarding allegations that led to (the student’s) expulsion. He denied my request and told me to leave his office.”
From there, the family was urged to appeal the case to Fitzgerald, according to the complaint. The family said they are not trying to escape disciplinary action, but since no records or information were provided, the expulsion was unwarranted.
Trustee Chair Lance Voegele declined to comment on the specifics of the expulsion, but said local control is paramount in running the district.
“I don’t want OPI telling me what to do in my school district,” he said. “I think that when we as a school district, governed by board members, don’t have authority to do what’s right for all the students in the district, then there’s a question about our credibility and, even more than that, the need for us (to exist).
“What are we good for if we can’t determine the safety of the students on behalf of the board?” he added. “We are sticking with the decision we made with a clear conscience because we know all of the facts.”
Voegele referred questions to Trustee Sherie Jolliff, who he said “knows more about the details.”
But Jolliff declined to discuss the offense, citing privacy issues. What she did say was that the case is coming to a head.
“It’s working its way up the chain of command,” she said. “We will have to go in front of the next place up and they will decide whether we were right or they were right. Right now it’s in the hands of the lawyers.”
According to OPI attorney Gilkey, her office will determine whether the county or the state has jurisdiction to hear the appeal.
“All issues are not appropriately before a county superintendent, but they may be more appropriately before another forum,” Gilkey said.
Once jurisdiction is determined, the appeal will be heard on its merits, either by Fitzgerald or State Superintendent of Schools Denise Juneau, she said. The jurisdiction question will be answered in the coming months.
Whatever the outcome, the party that ultimately loses the case could appeal to district court, Gilkey said.
Voegele said the board is not going to back down and will go to court if necessary.
“This is one that, I think, we are going to go all the way if that’s what it takes,” he said. “We figure that what we did was on the behalf of the all students and not the one expelled. That’s where we stand.”