Judge Orders Changes to Haddonfield's 24/7 Policy
In another blow to the school district, an administrative law judge says Haddonfield's rules for off-campus behavior go too far.
Haddonfield’s controversial 24/7 policy that punishes students for off-campus misconduct overreaches and must be revised, an administrative law judge has ruled.
While the state commissioner of education has the final say on whether the policy must be changed, an attorney representing students punished under the 24/7 rules said he’s confident Haddonfield’s school board will have to comply.
“The commissioner already upheld the Ramapo decision, and this decision is based on Ramapo,” Matthew Wolf said of an Appellate Court decision to strike down Ramapo schools’ 24/7 policy, which closely mirrored Haddonfield’s.
“The school district has already suspended the policy. Now they have no choice but to amend it,” added Wolf, who represents three former Haddonfield students in a lawsuit against the school board for the 24/7 policy.
In the ruling published Thursday, Administrative Law Judge Elia Pelios said Haddonfield’s policy fails to differentiate between off-campus offenses that simply break the law and those that affect the school district’s ability to provide a safe environment.
New Jersey law states that a “board of education may deny participation in extracurricular activities, school functions, sports or graduation exercises as disciplinary sanctions, where such measures are designed to maintain the order and integrity of the school environment.”
(Click on the PDFs, above right, to view Pelios’ decision and Haddonfield’s 24/7 policy, officially known as Policy No. 5132.)
Michael Wilson, former Haddonfield Memorial High School principal and now assistant superintendent, testified that any “violation of drug or alcohol laws relate to school/student safety,” the ruling says. The judge disagreed.
Wolf said he advised the school board several times over the past few years to narrow the policy. The board did not, and now Wolf is attempting to file a class-action lawsuit against the school district.
The ruling “makes it much more likely that we’ll obtain damages against the board of education in a class-action lawsuit for students who were innocent and not drinking, but were suspended from extracurricular activities wrongfully,” Wolf said.
He plans to file a motion to certify the class action next week in federal court.
Haddonfield school board solicitor Joseph Betley is on vacation and unavailable to comment. Messages left with attorney Kelly Adler and school board president Steve Weinstein weren’t immediately returned.
Betley previously told Patch the school district’s repeal of the 24/7 policy would not necessarily lead to a settlement or ruling against the board.
“I do not believe the Ramapo decision exposes the board to the Wolf attorney fees or damages,” Betley said. “The board of education should be able to establish reasonable rules for extracurricular activities.”
Haddonfield schools instituted the 24/7 policy in 2006 as a means to curb student drinking and drug and tobacco use. Students could be—and were, Wolf says—punished for being in the same room as underage drinkers even if they weren’t drinking themselves.
In 2010, the state education commissioner ordered school districts to scale back on the scope of their 24/7 policies. Wolf said Haddonfield was among the few districts to ignore that order.
While the school only officially suspended its policy July 31, Wolf said the school district didn’t punish any students under the policy in the 2011-12 school year.
“This lawsuit has always been about constitutional rights and the rights of families to discipline their own children,” Wolf said. “I do a lot of work with recovery groups and I don’t believe the board of education is qualified to reach into the homes of the families of Haddonfield and make disciplinary decisions that should be made by parents.”
The parties have 13 days to file exceptions with the state Department of Education on Pelios’ decision. The commissioner of education can adopt, reject or modify Pelios’ ruling within 45 days. After that, it goes into effect as written.