Court Declined To Reinstate Student Expelled For Bullying Incident

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: May 25, 2023

A high school student at the Hill School, a residential boarding school in Pennsylvania, was required to withdraw as a result of his participation in an encounter with a fellow student that the School deemed to be an incident of bullying. The incident involved the student dousing a sleeping classmate with water mixed with protein powder in the middle of the night, while two accomplices videotaped the incident and two other students watched from the doorway.

Before that incident occurred, the Plaintiff had been identified as a student who had problems with substance abuse, and as a result, was enrolled in a health and wellness program at the School. The student claimed that he was wrongly expelled because his expulsion was influenced, in part, by conduct related to his substance abuse and therefore a breach of contract. The student also claimed that his expulsion violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. He sought injunctive relief, asking the Court to reinstate him at the School.

The Court found that the student did not meet the standard for reinstatement. In analyzing a claim for injunctive relief, the moving party must first show a probability of success on their claims.

For the breach of contract claim, the Court considered the terms of the Enrollment Contract, which referenced the rules and regulations in the Hill School Handbook, which governs student conduct. The Handbook has a description of the Immediate Care (I-Care) program, which provides an option for students to avoid discipline connected to substance abuse by participating in a process of therapeutic nature designed to divert them from continued “self-destructive behavior.” The I-Care program requires a student to enter into a contract with certain commitments, and as part of the consideration for student participation, the School agrees to forego discipline for actions related to the student’s substance abuse so long as the student complies with program requirements.

Here, the student argued that before the bullying incident, he received a retroactive suspension and was placed on a conduct warning, which provided notice that any additional violations would constitute grounds for immediate dismissal. This sanction was imposed because the student attempted to assist another student in avoiding a positive drug test result. The student argued that he was later expelled due to the bullying incident because of this prior discipline, which should not have been imposed under the I-Care program.

The Court found that the Handbook and Enrollment Agreement both contained language that the headmaster or his/her designee had the discretion to require a student to withdraw, without the need to call for a Disciplinary Committee meeting, if the student violated a major School rule, had an accumulation of minor School rules, was suspected or confirmed to be involved in criminal activity, and/or was dangerous, negative, or a detrimental influence on the school and/or its community.

The Court noted that the Handbook and Enrollment terms were clear in that the immunity of the I-Care program was only related to the student’s own substance use. Further disciplinary decisions rest at the discretion of school officials.

The Court also considered the discipline imposed on the five students as a result of the bullying incident: the two students who watched in the doorway were suspended and the three involved in throwing the water and videotaping the incident were expelled. The three students who were expelled had a prior disciplinary record. The Court noted that the School does not have a formula for disciplinary decisions, and the School has the absolute discretion to expel the student even in the absence of a prior disciplinary record. The Headmaster attested that the determining factor for expelling three of the five students was their active role in participating in the incident.

The Court concluded that the School did not violate its promises related to I-Care. The decision to suspend the student stemmed from his attempt to assist another student in circumventing the School’s drug testing program. The student was aware that due to his participation in the drug testing circumvention, any further infraction could be grounds for dismissal.  As a result, the student could not show success on his breach of contract claim. Similarly, the Court found that the student was not dismissed in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because the expulsion was based on his participation in the bullying incident, not substance abuse or any related disabilities. As a result, the Court denied the student’s request to be reinstated at the School.

Doe v. Hill School (E.D. Pa., Apr. 10, 2023) 2023 WL 2868016.

Note: This case illustrates the importance of flexible disciplinary language in student handbooks and enrollment agreements. Here, the student’s argument that he was wrongfully expelled failed because the school administrators had the flexibility to determine disciplinary actions on a case-by-case basis at the sole discretion of the headmaster or the headmaster’s designee. 

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