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Parents sue IASD over student's expulsion

by CHAUNCEY ROSS chauncey@indianagazette.net on April 19, 2013 11:00 AM

The parents of an Indiana Area Senior High School student have taken the school district to court to have his district-ordered punishment for an underage drinking incident overturned.

In a lawsuit filed April 12 in Indiana County Common Pleas Court, attorneys for the student charge that the school district doesn’t have the authority to discipline the student, a 17-year-old junior, because his attendance at a Key Club convention last month in Hershey was not school-related.

Municipal police in Derry Township, Dauphin County, cited seven Indiana students with summary underage drinking charges March 9 at the Hershey Lodge and Convention Center.

School administrators and board members have not publicly identified the students or released information about the incident, but the students’ friends and relatives connected the incident with closed-door hearings conducted April 3 and the school board’s subsequent votes to impose unspecified sanctions on several students.

According to the civil suit, filed by attorney Ryan Fritz of the Delaney & Fritz law office in Indiana on behalf of Mark and June Edgar, the plaintiff was suspended from school for 10 days, then was expelled for the balance of the 2012-13 school year and part of the 2013-14 year.

Indiana Superintendent Dale Kirsch first suspended the student for 10 days following an informal hearing March 11, telling the student he committed a Level IV offense on a school-sponsored field trip, according to the lawsuit. Kirsch then told the student in a letter on March 22 that the school board would conduct an expulsion hearing, charging him with alcohol consumption during a school trip.

According to the court papers, the incident took place about 11 p.m. March 9 when the student attended a dance, one of many events planned by Pennsylvania District of Key Club and Pennsylvania District of Kiwanis International, at the state Key Club convention.

“Neither the District Key Club Convention, nor the dance attended by the Petitioner, constitute school-sponsored activities, and the Indiana Area School District did not pay for the transportation, food, lodging or events, including the dance, at the Convention,” the suit maintains.

The chaperones removed the students from the dance and questioned them about suspected violation of Key Club convention rules, then called the local police, according to the suit.

State Key Club officials told the students they were no longer welcome at the event, and police filed citations against them a few days later.

Involvement with alcoholic beverages, including possessing, selling, furnishing or being under the influence, is classified along with offenses such as bomb threats, theft, arson, extortion, vandalism, harassment of staff and “serious” assault as a Level IV infraction, the most serious grade listed in the school district’s student behavior and discipline handbook. Discipline options include criminal charges, suspension and expulsion for unspecified periods.

According to the handbook, students are subject to the behavior standards while “in school,” which is defined as being in the buildings or on school grounds, at school-sponsored activities on or off school property, at bus stops and on buses, walking to or from school, or on field trips, exchange trips, athletic events and music trips.

But according to the suit, “the Petitioner was not in school, on the grounds of the Indiana Area School District, at a school-sponsored activity, … and as the (district) was not acting ‘in loco parentis’ over the (student) when the alleged acts … are alleged to have taken place, the Indiana Area School District Discipline Policy is not applicable (and) does not govern Petitioner’s conduct.”

Further, the attorneys argue that only hearsay evidence of allegations was presented to the school board, the directors improperly expelled the student for conduct “which does not rise to a Level IV offense under its written Discipline Policy.”

The Indiana Gazette does not routinely identify juveniles who are accused of criminal offenses.

A hearing on the suit has been scheduled for May 1 before Judge Thomas Bianco.

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