One of the trickier tasks for schools is deciding where they can draw the line in controlling and disciplining their students for misbehavior, even when it happens well off school grounds or outside school hours.
Yesterday, the state Appellate Court added some legal lines to the debate, saying schools have some powers outside their walls but with some clear conditions.
The case had to do with underage drinking and drug use, but some experts said it speaks to any number of possibilities, including the state’s new landmark anti-bullying law.
The Ramapo-Indian Hills Regional High School District in Bergen County enacted a policy in 2009 that prevents students from participating in extracurricular activities if they are caught drinking or using drugs under any circumstance -- even far from school or over a weekend.
This policy required students to sign a consent form before playing sports or joining a club. Rather than sign, however, one district student challenged the regulation in court as an infringement of her rights.
In its ruling, the Appellate Court reaffirmed a ruling by the state’s education commissioner at the time and found that the board had no authority under current statute or regulations to hand down such a policy.
Among other arguments, the court said that the board had failed to make a direct connection between students’ outside actions and the operation of their schools, what it called a critical “nexus” required in defining the scope of a district’s powers.
"Under [Ramapo’s policy], a student could be suspended from participating in extracurricular activities as the result of receiving a citation for littering on a municipal sidewalk," the court wrote.
The decision did not come as much of a surprise, officials said yesterday. Nor did it change much in terms of what districts do now after the previous ruling in the case by former state acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks.
In that decision, Hendricks shot down the Ramapo board and put districts on notice statewide as to what would be allowed in their policies. It was that decision by the commissioner that was under appeal by the state court.
But what has somewhat changed since then is the extent of local districts’ powers granted by last year's landmark anti-bullying legislation, known as the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights and one of the toughest in the nation.
Under the new law, schools are required to follow specific procedures and guidelines in investigating and acting on complaints of bullying and intimidation, inside school and out.
The key language in the law reads that a school can take action on cases of outside bullying if it finds the bullying “substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students.”
The Ramapo school board had raised the statute in its argument, claiming it gave the board the authority to act on outside behavior. But the appellate court came back and said the “nexus” or direct connection was not proven.
"Nothing in these statutes abrogate the requirement that there be a nexus between the student's conduct and the orderly administration of the school," the court wrote yesterday.
Lawyers from both sides said it was an important line for the state court to uphold, but there was likely more to be decided in the case of the bullying law.
Overall, the state’s school boards association, which filed a brief in the case, said it was disappointed in the decision. The decision can still be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
“Participation in extracurricular activities is a privilege, not a right,” said Frank Belluscio, the association’s spokesman. “We believe that state regulations give a school district the authority to restrict participation in extracurricular activities due to a student’s out-of school conduct that is dangerous and/or disruptive.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey also filed a "friend of the court" brief, arguing that Ramapo had overstepped its bounds. "It was vast overreaching of school district into the lives of students and their families," said Edward Barocas, the ACLU’s legal director.
He said the bullying law proved an important piece of the case, in that it laid out the need for a district to prove the connection. He said under the new law, even a case of harassment at summer camp could rightfully be acted on by a school, "if it leads to a negative interaction at school," he said.
"Actions unrelated to the operation of a school should not be subject to discipline," he said.
David Rubin is board counsel to Piscataway schools and a half dozen others, and he said the Ramapo decision in itself may prove pretty narrow to this one case. "And it doesn’t say a lot more than what we knew already," he said.
But as the anti-bullying coordinator for Piscataway schools, responsible for handling bullying accusations, Rubin said the ruling speaks to the difficulty of decisions made regularly as to whether outside harassment can become a school’s business.
"We apply the test all the time," he said. "Many if not most of our decisions deal with off-campus behavior, and my rule of thumb is that whatever happens after hours or outside school, will it be something that affects that kid [who was targeted] as he steps onto the school bus the next morning?"
If it is, there can be grounds for district action, he said. If the harassment left the student unaffected, it is more difficult. "If it rolled off his back as soon as it happened, it is maybe something we can bring up with parents but not something we would necessarily discipline," he said.
Others concurred that the line is likely still to be set by the courts.
"We deal with these all the time, and it is very difficult to make that call to when it crosses the line to affect the school setting," said Jonathan Busch of Schwartz Simon Edelstein & Celso, the Whippany law firm that represents about 100 districts in one form or another.
"There is not always a nexus," he said. "In my opinion, it really does need to be substantial."
Yet as more and more cases arise in schools, others said it is likely one or more of them will eventually end up for the courts to decide.
"At some point, we’ll have darker lines drawn," Busch said. "Not sure this case got there yet."