Is It Unconstitutional For New Jersey Schools to Punish Students for Off-Campus Activities?

Donald ScarinciThere are several lawsuits pending across the state of New Jersey that seek to invalidate overreaching school conduct policies on off-campus activities. The policies have drawn criticism from parents and students because they seek to impose disciplinary sanctions for illicit activities, including drug and alcohol use, that occur off school grounds.

As reported by the New Jersey Law Journal, 72 Haddonfield High School students were recently denied class action status in their lawsuit related to a “24/7” conduct policy dating back to 2006. District Judge Noel Hillman ruled that the students lacked the commonality needed to form a class because there were variations in how the students were impacted by the policy.

Under the policy at issue, students found to be using drugs or alcohol outside of school can be prohibited from participating in extracurricular activities, ordered to perform community service, and mandated to attend counseling at their parents’ expense. The lawsuit contends that these provisions violate several constitutionally protected rights, including the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of due process, the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

The Ramapo Indian Hills school district is also defending a similar policy that punishes students facing criminal charges and violations of municipal ordinances, as well as drug or alcohol use. In September 2010, the state commissioner of education sided with an administrative law judge that found the district’s code of conduct was unconstitutional.

The commissioner also found that the school district had exceeded its authority under New Jersey law. The ruling cited N.J.A.C.6A:16-7.6(a)(2), which authorizes a board to revoke a student’s ability to participate in extracurricular activities for conduct off school grounds only when the conduct “materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” As such, the commissioner specifically highlighted the need for a relationship between the conduct of the student and the school environment.

These cases call into question many of the policies adopted by school district throughout New Jersey. While we recognize that the schools are simply trying to protect students and promote good conduct, they may need to find a way that does not run afoul of the legal protections afforded by the laws of New Jersey and the U.S. Constitution.


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