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Haddonfield's 24/7 Student Discipline Policy Could Be in Jeopardy

The Haddonfield school district faces a payout of tens of thousands of dollars in a lawsuit against it.

The Haddonfield school district's 24/7 student discipline policy could be in jeopardy after a state Appellate Court ruling this week struck down a similar policy in Ramapo, Bergen County.

That's the conclusion of a board of education attorney and a lawyer suing the school board over the policy.

The dueling lawyers disagree, however, about whether Tuesday's court ruling could lead to a settlement of a federal lawsuit on behalf students who claim the policy harmed them. That suit could achieve a class-action status to cover up to 86 students who were denied opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports or band, after running afoul of the law, mostly for petty alcohol or drug offenses.

Haddonfield school officials say their policy has helped stem a culture of excess that led to two deaths several years ago. Matthew S. Wolf, an attorney representing several students disciplined under the policy, said it was illegal because it sought the power to discipline students for off-campus behavior.

Wolf also claims Haddonfield borough officials willfully violated state criminal processing procedure by promoting a policy of charging juveniles for first offenses in petty alcohol and drug possession cases from 2007 to 2010. Wolf said the practice was ordered stopped by a Camden County Prosecutor's Office directive to release the juveniles in the custody of their parents for first offenses.

The state commissioner of education also issued a ruling in June 2010 to curtail 24/7 policies in school districts around the state. Wolf claims that Haddonfield was one of the only school districts in the state to ignore the ruling and continue with a tough 24/7 policy.

"The Ramapo appellate decision disposed of all the defenses the Haddonfield Board of Education has been asserting for the last three years," Wolf said Thursday. "What we're looking for is a declaration from the court that the policy is unconstitutional and we're looking for a rescission of the policy. The main relief would be equitable if the rights of the students, under the Constitution, were violated."

BOE could have to pay thousands in fees and damages

Wolf said his fees alone after three years top more than $300,000. A settlement or a court decision in the lawsuit could also award damages to the students. The school district is also paying its solicitor, Joe Betley, an additional fee for his work on the case.

Betley said he believes the school district's liability insurance will pay any fees associated with the case, including his, win or lose. But he rejects Wolf's claim that the Ramapo ruling will pave the way toward a victory for the students' court challenge.

"I do not believe the Ramapo decision exposes the board to the Wolf attorney fees or damages," Betley said Thursday. "The board of education should be able to establish reasonable rules for extracurricular activities."

Betley conceded, however, the district's 24/7 policy could be changed or eliminated in light of the Ramapo decision. Haddonfield filed an amicus brief in the Ramapo case stating that the policies were so similar that a decision in Ramapo would directly affect its policy. But Betley said Thursday that Ramapo's policy was more comprehensive than Haddonfield's.

Betley plans to meet Tuesday with the school board to discuss the case. That meeting will likely be an executive session and closed to the public.

School board President Steve Weinstein said Thursday he wanted to hold his comments on the case until the board met.

Mayor Tish Colombi said she also wanted to speak with the the borough solicitor about what happens next. But she said Haddonfield's policy was inspired by a crisis in the community.

"A lot of people worked really hard in a thoughtful way to protect children," she said. "We had two 16-year-old kids dead because of alcohol. It was horrible for the kids and parents and lot of well-meaning people got together and studied this and thought this was a good thing to do."

Tom Kenny July 27, 2012 at 03:31 PM
Maryann, Nothing more needs to be said, I may not even scroll down and read what other people posted. OK I'll admit it, I read Beth's message and she is also "Spot On"!! I thank you both for your sanity! Tom
Reed Rothchild July 27, 2012 at 03:41 PM
I just wanted to point out that this is a complete contradiction: "Although I fully support the 24/7 policy, I vehemently resent that my tax dollars are being used to discipline other peoples' kids. Schools should be only responsible for reading, writing and 'rithmatic.....not being the moral director of children....that's the parents' job" You can't "fully support the 24/7 policy" and then state that "schools should be ONLY responsible for reading, writing and 'rithmatic" therefore you wouldn't fully support the 24/7 policy. Just saying.
Herb Hess July 27, 2012 at 03:56 PM
The two deceased children (one the son of a friend of mine) died from causes which a) could not be determined as the young man jumped off of a bridge and was not recovered for some time b) appeared in the press to be related to substance abuse. Holding them up continually as the rationale for unconstitutional laws is really an abuse of power. Haddonfield has had issues with alcohol abuse since long before I grew up here in the '60's and 70's. Our assistant principal, Mr. Elliot, confirmed anecdotally that Haddonfield had a drinking problem for the last 50 years. He told me that in the mid-1970's. I experienced and witnessed substantial underage drinking and drug-abuse growing up here and have not seen any evidence that we have eliminated this problem today. In the end I agree that schools should educate and parents should parent. To the extent that schools can support good mental and physical health among students they should do so. Outside of the school environment - a simple, clear message to parents needs to be "If you or a member of your family break the law, there will be legal consequences". Better to spend Matt Wolf's $300,000 in legal fees as well as the BOE's legal fees on resources that could help families that have issues. Unfortunately when 24/7 was instituted it was gutted by the BOE during its first test. Enforcement appears to be arbitrary and the outcome is teaching our kids that privilege and wealth can secure freedom from punishment.
Paula Thomason July 27, 2012 at 03:58 PM
Dawn.. You're clueless... If I hadn't been the subject of such organized stalking and electronic harrassment myself.. some how, poor as I am, I would have found a way to join them. The 24/7 policy needs to be abolished. The Board has ignored endless complaints and instead dragged it's feet and selectively run many children literally out of town or to drop out. It's been a shameful disgrace. These people aren't some spoiled snotty brat's... they were just blessed to be able to file suit. We haven't had the means and have instead been fodder. It is in NO WAY a frivilous suit. If they hadn't terrorized all the others.... the suit would include quite a large number. Schoolhouse to prison pipeline...selectively enforced... well intentioned overkill. If children felt free to speak and tell their horrors... naughty, naughty people.... These are children. Children do childish things. They make mistakes. They are children. Love them. Teach them. You can hold them accountable for their actions without sentencing them to what really is.. a death sentence.. for life because there is no life afterwards, only in heaven. Never forget, J.T. Haggerty.
Maryann Campling July 27, 2012 at 06:51 PM
Mr. Rothchild: Thanks for allowing me to clarify my position on 24/7 so that others will not be confused. I agree with the spirit of 24/7 meaning, to me at least, if you do the crime, you do the time. I know it is an archaic concept in today's progressive society, but in my opinion.....breaking the rules/laws should have consequences....period. That having been said, the parents should have enough sense to curtail their kid's privileges (sports, dances, use of the car, hanging out, etc.) What I resent is use of the school's and for that matter the Boro's resources doing the job that parents should be doing. I doubt any (over)taxpaying resident would disgree with that.

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