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Kindergartener’s Expulsion Prompts Educational and Legal Controversy

Last month, a Philadelphia state court’s reversal of a six-year-old kindergartener’s expulsion sparked renewed controversy over school rules and school district law.

The preschooler was expelled from the First Philadelphia Charter School for Literacy for touching his teacher’s thighs. Court documents quoted the boy as saying that he only wanted to “make them feel better” after the teacher complained of leg pain.

zero%20tolerance%20at%20school.jpgA Philadelphia Common Court of Pleas recently agreed. In a May 23 ruling, Honorable Paul P. Panepinto found that the child only intended to comfort his teacher.

The heart of legal contention lies in the question of whether charter schools should have greater legal license in student discipline than other institutions. Arguing in the affirmative, charter school operators cite students’ ability to resume instruction at public schools following expulsion from charter facilities.

Critics charge that such a double standard is legally impermissible, however.

History of Disruption?

Court documents revealed three prior expulsions during the plaintiff’s enrollment. The first occurred last December after the boy touched a female classmate’s buttocks beneath a table while attempting to retrieve mislaid crayons.

He was suspended on two subsequent occasions for allegedly tripping, shoving, or stepping on the toes of other children. According to legal pleadings, the child was a habitual disciplinary problem. One staff member ranked his disruptive behavior as “8” on a scale of 1 to 10.

Judge Panepinto limited his focus to the thigh-touching incident in ruling that the boy’s final expulsion last March was an abuse of school officials’ discretion. In so finding, the court opined that such conduct was developmentally normal.

School officials view the matter much more seriously, however. In court briefs, school district attorneys posited that touching an adult teacher’s upper thighs was inappropriate conduct in a classroom.

The current posture of the case is pending mandatory court mediation. Absent a satisfactory settlement, it will advance to the Commonwealth Court. Meanwhile, the kindergartner is enrolled in a private school where he has reportedly presented no major behavioral problems.

Broader questions of education law and/or school district law loom large in the backdrop of this litigation, as charter schools proliferate across the nation. In this writer’s view, uniformity is in the best long-term interests of our nation’s youth. Mere piecemeal accountability leaves them at the mercy of capricious school authorities.

If you are a California school administrator with a question about student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, or school employment law, feel free to call attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district issue.