Dear Legal Mailbag:

It has been an adjustment, but I am getting kind of used to living in cyberspace as we work through the challenges of remote learning and COVID-19. One question, however, is nagging at me – is there such a thing as “school property” right now? When I took my school law course, I learned that school administrators are not “super-policemen” who are responsible for enforcing the law in general. Rather, as school officials, we have only those powers that come with our position. One of those powers, of course, is to maintain order on school property, where we act “in loco parentis.”

Now that we are all working remotely, what is my authority over students? For example, I heard on the news about one student who was Zoom-bombing other classes, and in my idle moments, I have wondered what ever happened to him. He was at home when he engaged in his online misconduct, and I wasn’t even sure if he was disrupting classes in his own district or in other districts. If he were a student in my school, would I have the authority to impose discipline for his awful behavior?

Intellectually Curious
Dear Curious:

What idle moments are those? Legal Mailbag knows that you school administrators are working harder than ever, making sure that teachers deliver remote instruction effectively. But Legal Mailbag enjoys a good intellectual discussion as much as anyone, and here’s the deal.

The law does indeed distinguish between actions taken on school property and those taken off of school property. Administrators clearly have the authority to discipline for actions students take on school property. But wait, there is more! Conn. Gen. State. § 10-233c provides that school administrators have the authority “to suspend from school privileges a pupil whose conduct on school grounds or at a school sponsored activity is violative of a publicized policy of such board or is seriously disruptive of the educational process or endangers persons or property.” Right away we see that “school” jurisdiction includes not only the school grounds, but also any “school sponsored activity.” Accordingly, if a student misbehaves during remote learning (or any other school activity), he or she is subject to discipline in the normal course.

What about when the misbehavior that occurs outside of school or a school activity, you ask. Here, Legal Mailbag must give you the all-purpose answer to legal questions – it depends. The overarching principle is that the student’s misconduct must implicate the school district’s educational interests. If you learn that a student was caught shoplifting, for example, you would be hard-pressed to argue that his actions affect the school district. However, you do have jurisdiction and thus authority to take disciplinary action over certain types of off-campus conduct.

The statutes provide guidance in this regard. As to suspension, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-233c provides that suspension from school may be imposed on students “whose conduct off school grounds is violative of [board] policy and is seriously disruptive of the educational process.” Please note that both requirements must be met — the conduct must violate a board policy and it must be seriously disruptive of the educational process.

The statute then goes on to identify relevant considerations: “In making a determination as to whether conduct is seriously disruptive of the educational process, the administration may consider, but such consideration shall not be limited to: (1) Whether the incident occurred within close proximity of a school; (2) whether other students from the school were involved or whether there was any gang involvement; (3) whether the conduct involved violence, threats of violence or the unlawful use of a weapon, as defined in section 29-38, and whether any injuries occurred; and (4) whether the conduct involved the use of alcohol.” The statute contemplates that you will determine whether you have a legitimate educational interest (and thus jurisdiction) to discipline the student for violating a board policy by considering these factors. Some (but not all) of these factors can be present in the cyber world (e.g., threats of violence involving other student from the school). In such cases, you may well have jurisdiction and thus authority to discipline the student.

Other statutes confer jurisdiction over off-campus conduct more explicitly. Under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-233d(b), expulsion is mandatory for certain off-campus actions, i.e., when a student

  • “off school grounds, did possess such a firearm in violation of section 29-35 or did possess and use such a firearm, instrument or weapon in the commission of a crime under chapter 952,” or
  • “on or off school grounds, offered for sale or distribution a controlled substance, as defined in subdivision (9) of section 21a-240, whose manufacture, distribution, sale, prescription, dispensing, transporting or possessing with intent to sell or dispense, offering, or administering is subject to criminal penalties under sections 21a-277 and 21a-278.”

When students engage in such serious misbehavior off campus, administrators have not only the authority but also the obligation to recommend expulsion.

The very definition of “bullying” in the statute also confers jurisdiction on school administrators for such student conduct off campus. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-222d(a)(1) provides in relevant part:

(1) “Bullying” means (A) the repeated use by one or more students of a written, oral or electronic communication, such as cyberbullying, directed at or referring to another student attending school in the same school district . . . that: (i) Causes physical or emotional harm to such student or damage to such student’s property, (ii) places such student in reasonable fear of harm to himself or herself, or of damage to his or her property, (iii) creates a hostile environment at school for such student, (iv) infringes on the rights of such student at school, or (v) substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school. (Emphasis added).

When you determine that a student has engaged in such conduct, this statute confers jurisdiction upon you to take appropriate disciplinary and other remedial action, even when the misconduct occurs wholly off school property.

Finally, our Connecticut Supreme Court weighed in on this subject way back in 1998. In Packer v. Thomaston Board of Education, 246 Conn. 89 (1998), the court considered the general authority of school officials to discipline for off-campus conduct. The court interpreted the authority of school officials narrowly in such cases, stating that the legislature intended the phrase “seriously disruptive of the educational process” to mean “conduct that markedly interrupts or severely impedes the day-to-day operation of a school.” In that case, the student was guilty of simply possessing marijuana off campus. Accordingly, the court found that the student’s conduct did not meet that high standard, and it ruled that the student’s expulsion was improper.

Someday, life will return to normal, and we will be back in school. But either then or now, you clearly have the authority to discipline students in any number of situations that can arise off campus. Now let’s just hope that you don’t have to do so.

Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.
Written by attorney Thomas B. Mooney.