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."