Private schools may not have to follow the same rules and procedures as public schools, but they still have to follow the rules that they themselves have put into place. If there were no standards that private schools had to maintain, they could arbitrarily treat and discipline students in any manner they chose. Recently, in B.S. v. Noor-Ul-Iman School, the parents of a student claimed that the school did just that to their child.
On May 8, 2013, the child, an excellent student, was questioned by the school’s staff about charges that he violated the school’s “Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying Policy.” During the interrogation, the staff members called the boy a liar and repeatedly told him to confess to violating the policy. He was told to write a statement in response to the allegations of misconduct – without ever identifying the exact nature of the allegations. He was questioned child for 2 or 3 hours before being allowed to call his parents.
When the parents finally met with school officials later that day, they were told to keep their son home until the school completed its investigation into the allegations. Days after the investigation was completed, the school notified the parents that it was barring their son from returning to school and requiring that he be evaluated by a mental health professional. The school did not give the parents a copy of the investigative report.
But the school did allow the child to complete his assignments from home for the remainder of the school year and reserved its right to allow him to return in the fall. Even after he was seen by a psychologist selected by the school, completed multiple therapy sessions, and it was found that he did not suffer from any mood disorders, the school still refused to allow him to return to school for the current year.
Instead, they allowed the boy to complete the current school year under the existing special arrangements and reserved the right to suspend or expel him later. The parents then filed a lawsuit claiming that the school’s disciplinary procedure was fundamentally unfair. The case was dismissed by a judge because the child was not yet expelled from the school. The judge wrote: “Had there been an expulsion then you may have had a different issue.” The parents appealed.
In New Jersey, in order to have a claim against a private school for improperly exercising a disciplinary policy, it must be claimed that the school either failed to follow its own established disciplinary procedures or, in carrying out the discipline, failed to follow a procedure that is fundamentally fair. But even if parents successfully prove those things, a court will still “balance” that against the school’s interests.
In this case, the school’s parent/student handbook said that teachers would handle most disciplinary problems in the classroom and the teacher would inform the parent verbally and/or in writing if a student’s misbehavior needed to be addressed at home. If the behavior of the student continued to be inappropriate, a conference would be requested with the parents and teacher to determine how to resolve the situation.
The parents claimed that the investigation of their son was defective and inconsistent with the policies for several reasons: 1) the boy was never informed of the exact charges against him; 2) the investigation was led by a “senior staff member” with relatives in the child’s grade, who acted with contempt towards child and his parents; 3) members of the staff who had conflicts of interest also failed to recuse themselves from any discussion or decision relating to the child; and 4) most significantly, the school never gave the parents a copy of its investigation report. Ultimately, the Appeals Court ruled that if the claims by the parents were in fact true, then it would suggest that the school’s process was fundamentally unfair, because of its failures to give them a copy of the investigation report and to specify the offending conduct. The higher court reinstated the claim and sent it back to the lower court. Omar Bareentto is a 2016 Rutgers School of Law graduate and a former contributor to the Rutgers Business Law Review. He collaborated with me on this blog.