Posts tagged with "school board"

Religion in Schools: Does v. Enfield Public Schools

The separation of church and state has increasingly become a hotly debated issue in this country. In the context of schools, it has received the most attention from this country’s highest court. From school prayer to the observance of religious holidays, from textbook content to school vouchers, this area of school law has some degree of impact on nearly every aspect of a child’s educational experience.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Beginning in the 1960s, the Supreme Court of the United States began striking down state laws permitting (or even mandating) the recitation of Bible verses in school.[1] In Lemon v. Kurtzman,[2] the Supreme Court articulated a three-part analysis (the so-called Lemon test) to determine whether school (government) actions complied with the Establishment Clause’s constitutional requirements:

  1. The school action must have a secular, or non-religious, purpose.
  2. The primary effect of the action must neither advance nor inhibit religion.
  3. The action must avoid excessive entanglement of government with religion.

Thus, in the realm of education law, if an action taken by the school board does not comply with any one of these three prongs, it will violate the First Amendment.

To illustrate, the U.S. District Court in the District of Connecticut recently found that the Enfield Board of Education’s plans to hold the graduations for its two high schools at a Christian church were unconstitutional. In that case, despite the availability of comparable secular facilities, the board appeared to give in to “aggressive lobbying by a religious organization”[3] to hold the ceremonies at First Cathedral in Bloomfield. Although there were plans to cover or remove overtly religious symbols,[4] the school board played an active role in deciding what constituted a “religious image or message.”[5] In addition, there were several large crosses and images that could not be covered.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Connecticut filed a lawsuit on behalf of several non-Christian students, asserting that allowing the Enfield Board of Education to hold graduation at this location violated the Establishment Clause. In its Complaint, it stated:

[T]he location coerces students and parents to receive the overwhelming religious message of the Cathedral as the price of attending a seminal event in their lives; communicates a message of governmental favoritism of the Christian religion; entails the use of public funds to support religion-infused graduation; and excessively entangles the Schools with a religious institution.[6]

The District Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, which sought to prohibit the school from conducting the graduations at First Cathedral. It found:

[P]laintiffs have made a substantial showing that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that holding 2010 graduations at First Cathedral constitutes an impermissible endorsement of religion because it conveys the message that certain religious views are embraced by Enfield Schools, and others are not.[7]

The District Court’s decision was based on the character of the venue, noting various attributes of the facility (namely the crosses) and stating, “First Cathedral creates an environment… overwrought with religious symbols.”[8] The perception of a reasonable person attending graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral would leave them with the impression that “Enfield Schools… [are] closely linked with First Cathedral and its religious mission, that it favors the religious over the irreligious, and that it prefers Christians over those that subscribe to other faiths, or no faith at all.”[9] The District Court also extensively discussed the unique context and history of the board’s decision to hold the graduations at First Cathedral.[10]

Two years after the courts found against the Enfield school district, its board of education voted to accept a settlement of the lawsuit. “Under the terms of the settlement… [the plaintiffs’] legal fees would be partially reimbursed, and the town would agree not to hold its graduations at First Cathedral.”[11]

The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced practitioners of school law and assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport. Should you have any questions regarding religion in schools or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] See, e.g., Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962); Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).

[2] 403 U.S. 602 (1971).

[3] Complaint pp. 1, Does v. Enfield Board of Education (D. Conn. 2010). http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/2010-5-5-DoesvEnfield-Complaint.pdf

[4] Ruling Re: Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction pp. 15-16, Does v. Enfield Board of Education (D. Conn. 2010). http://www.acluct.org/downloads/Enfieldgraduationdecision.pdf

[5] Id. at 16.

[6] See Footnote 3, pp. 1-2.

[7] See Footnote 4, pp. 26.

[8] Id. at 30.

[9] Id. at 32.

[10] Id. at 32-38.

[11] “Enfield School Board OKs Settlement In Lawsuit Over Graduations Held At First Cathedral,” by Kristin Stoller. July 18, 2012: http://articles.courant.com/2012-07-18/community/hc-enfield-aclu-lawsuit-settlement-20120718_1_chairman-timothy-neville-peter-jonaitis-alex-luchenitser

A Student’s Rights During the Expulsion Process

When a school board decides that a child’s misbehavior warrants a greater punishment than up to ten (10) days’ exclusion from school, they may instead consider issuing an expulsion. As with suspensions, there are three recognized grounds (discussed in greater detail here) for expelling a student: his or her behavior 1) violates a publicized school policy; 2) seriously disrupts the educational process; or 3) endangers persons or property. Where the conduct was committed on school grounds, only one category need be established; if off school grounds, then a showing of both #2 and #3 are required.

As a parent, if your child is facing an expulsion, it is imperative that you understand your child’s rights during the expulsion process. Below you will find a concise guide on what to expect before, during, and after the expulsion hearing.

Before the Hearing and Preparation

When an expulsion is considered for student misbehavior, parents must receive written notice “within twenty-four hours detailing the date, time, a plain statement of the matters at hand, and a list of free or reduced-fee legal services.”[1] The school board must also provide any and all documentary evidence it intends to present at a suspension hearing. Barring emergency circumstances,[2] students are statutorily entitled to a formal hearing in front of the school board within ten (10) days after the proposed expulsion.[3]

Parents are advised that prior to the hearing, they review the school board’s evidence and speak with the school board’s witnesses to understand the substance of their potential testimony. In addition, parents should arrange for their own witnesses to testify on their child’s behalf.

At the Hearing

The expulsion hearing is presided over by three members of the board of education (or an impartial hearing officer).[4] Their purpose is to determine whether an expulsion is proper, and if so, how long it should last. A school administrator will present the facts leading to the expulsion, followed by presentation of evidence and cross-examination of witnesses by both parties. Board members have the opportunity to ask questions, and both the student and administrator may present additional arguments.

After the Hearing

The school board or hearing officer may render one of three possible decisions:

  1. Reject expulsion. The child immediately eligible to return to school.
  2. Support expulsion. The child cannot attend school or any school-sponsored activity for the duration of the expulsion. The school board will consider disciplinary history in determining the length of the expulsion.
  3. Recommend a suspended expulsion. This is basically probation for the student. If the student misbehaves again, the expulsion may be imposed.

Within twenty-four (24) hours of the hearing, parents must receive the decision. If expulsion was recommended, parents cannot appeal but are left with some choices:

  • The board must provide an alternative educational program (AEP) for the duration of the expulsion. Click here for more information on AEPs.
  • The parent may seek to enroll their child in another school, but this may be denied by the potential receiving school.
  • The parent may apply, on their child’s behalf, for early re-admission to the school.

Because of the potentially adverse and significant impact a suspension or expulsion can have on a student’s future, it is imperative to seek the advice of an experienced school law practitioner. The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport. Should you have any questions regarding school discipline or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.


[1] “Advocating on Your Child’s Behalf: A Parent’s Guide to Connecticut School Law,” by Joseph C. Maya, Esq. at pp.42 (citing Connecticut General Statutes § 10-233d(a)(3)).

[2] Connecticut General Statutes § 10-233d(a).

[3] Connecticut General Statutes § 10-233d(a)(3).

[4] Connecticut General Statutes § 10-233d.

The Limited Circumstances Permitting Right to Transfer Under No Child Left Behind

Since it was passed into law in January 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been the subject of ongoing debate regarding its focus on test scores and increased teacher and administration accountability. However, one aspect of this legislation that has not received as much attention in the spotlight concerns school assignment decisions and the role of NCLB in the right to transfer.

Under Connecticut law, local boards of education are left with the task of determining which school district, if there is more than one in the town, a student is required to attend.[1] In some situations, your local school board may reach out to a neighboring town and agree to send its students to the latter (typically for matters of geographical convenience). Furthermore, school boards may “develop intradistrict student assignment programs [whereby] parents may select the public school which their child will attend provided the school is in the school district in which the child resides.”[2]

When such a program is not implemented and the school board assigns your child to a particular district, you as a parent are without the right to appeal. However, NCLB has chiseled three narrow situations by which the assignment is overruled.

Situation #1: The school is “in need of improvement” under NCLB.

Under NCLB § 1111, if your child attends a school that is designated as “in need of improvement,” he or she may seek transfer to a different school (if any) in the district.

Situation #2: Your child is the victim of a violent crime on school grounds.

Under NCLB § 9532, if your child is becomes the victim of a violent crime while on school grounds, he or she must be allowed the opportunity to seek transfer to a different school (if any) in the district. As further detailed by the State Board of Education, this requires:

  1. Bodily injury to the child, caused by an intentional, negligent, or reckless act by someone else.
  2. Police must be notified and write up a report.
  3. The police report must contain facts sufficient to show that the alleged acts constituted a crime.

Situation #3: The school is “persistently dangerous.”

Also under NCLB § 9532, if a state receives Title I funds, it must identify all schools that are “persistently dangerous” and afford the opportunity to children attending these schools to transfer into ones that are safer within the same district (if any). In its Circular Letter C-34, the State Department of Education explained that “the identification of an unsafe school concentrates upon two types of serious offenses: weapons violations and violent acts,” which fall into three categories:

  1. Student expulsion for possession of firearms or explosives on school property. Two or more incidents of this nature satisfy this criterion.
  2. Student expulsion for possession of other weapons (such as knives) or implements capable of causing injury. Three or more incidents of this nature satisfy this criterion (at a rate of one per 200 students).
  3. Student expulsion for a violent criminal offense. Three or more incidents of this nature satisfy this criterion (at a rate of one per 200 students).

If two of the three criterion are present for three consecutive years, “the school will be identified as persistently dangerous, all students must be offered the option of transferring to a school that has not been identified as persistently dangerous within the district.”[3] However, as a parent, it is important to realize that your child’s right to transfer is moot if there is only one school at a particular level in your district, regardless of whether or not he or she qualifies for transfer under any of the three NCLB scenarios.

The attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C., assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport. If you have any questions regarding school assignment, right to transfer, or any other education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.


[1] Connecticut General Statutes § 10-220(a).

[2] Connecticut General Statutes § 10-221e.

[3] Series 2002-03, Circular Letter: C-34 (June 23, 2003).

Scenarios That Commonly Lead to School Residency Disputes

In a previous post, I discussed what takes place if a parent’s son or daughter has been deemed ineligible for free school accommodations because the school board has determined he or she did not reside in the district. Undoubtedly the headaches and stress that accompany the hearing and appellate processes are nothing to sneeze at, so it is important for parents to do what they can to understand ahead of time the [common] situations that may call into question their child’s residency.

Scenario #1: The child lives with both parents.

When a child lives with both parents, he or she will go to the school district in which the residence is located. Typically, a school district will request proof of residence, typically in the form of driver’s licenses or utility bills.

Scenario #2: You are a divorced parent.

If you are a divorced parent, your child is eligible to attend school in the district in which either you or your ex-spouse resides. It boils down to where your child in fact resides, which will not be defeated simply because the child divides his time between each parents’ location. Legal custody of the child is not a requirement for eligibility.

Scenario #3: Your child lives with another family member or a friend of the family.

Under Connecticut law, if a child resides with relatives or nonrelatives, “when it is the intention of such relatives or nonrelatives and the children or their parents or guardians that such residence is to be permanent, provided without pay and not for the sole purpose of obtaining school accommodations… shall be entitled to all free school privileges accorded to the resident children of the school district in which they reside.”[1] In this situation, the school district may ask for evidentiary documentation, or even a signed affidavit to pertinent facts, that attest to compliance with statutory requirements.

Permanent residence is established by considering numerous factors, including but not limited to: where most of your child’s possessions and clothing is located; where your child attends church or other religious services; where your child’s immediate family resides; and the town that issued your child’s library card.

You cannot pay a family member or friend in exchange for allowing your child to live with them (thus gaining access to free school accommodations in that district). However, according to guidelines promulgated by the State Department of Education, “pay” does not include support payments pursuant to a court order, claiming the child as an income tax deduction, or maintenance of the child’s health insurance coverage.

Scenario #4: Your house is located on a town boundary line.

In some situations, a family’s single piece of property may span two towns – this does not, however, automatically mean that their child is entitled to attend school in whichever district they choose. Courts will make this determination on the interaction between the house itself and the town line: 1) if the residence is entirely located in one town, this is the only school district for which the child is eligible; or 2) if the town line “cuts through” the residence, the child may attend school in either district.

Scenario #5: Your child is in this country illegally.

The issue of illegal immigration has become a common topic of sparring on the national political stage, but for school districts in Connecticut, a child’s visa status is irrelevant in determining eligibility to attend its schools. According to a longstanding Supreme Court of Connecticut decision, a child is entitled to attend school if he or she is “actually present,” or residing, in the district itself.[2]

Ensuring free school accommodations for your child is important, but even more critical is making sure you do not run afoul of residency requirements. The situations in which confusion may occur are rather commonplace, and should you find your child being denied free school accommodations due to residency issues, it is imperative that you seek the counsel of an experienced and knowledgeable school law practitioner. The attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C., assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport. If you have any questions regarding eligibility and residency or any other education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.


[1] Connecticut General Statutes § 10-253(d).

[2] Yale v. West Middle School, 59 Conn. 489, 491 (1890).

The Use of Corporal Punishment in Connecticut Schools

Perusing my Google Reader feeds this morning, I came across an article concerning student spankings as a form of school discipline in the Springtown Independent School District, located in Texas. A parent complained that her daughter endured “welts, blisters and bruises from a male administrator’s paddle,” prompting the school board to modify its rules regarding corporal punishment.

Before the complaints… policy only allowed male administrators to paddle male students and female administrators to paddle female students. … Parents must now approve of the use of corporal punishment before it can be administered; the form of punishment is limited to one semester; and if the administrator is of the opposite sex, a same-sex adult must also be present.[1]

Whether or not this is progress or backtracking is the subject of debate. Deborah Sendek, Program Director of the Center for Effective Discipline, characterized this action as “disturbing,” adding, “We think there are much more efficient ways and effective ways to work with kids in terms of discipline problems.”[2]

In 1979, the United States Supreme Court ruled validated the use of corporal punishment in public schools in Ingraham v. Wright. It reasoned that under the common law, “the State itself may impose such corporal punishment as is reasonably necessary ‘for the proper education of the child and for the maintenance of group discipline.’”[3] The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment applied only in the criminal context, and the Court declined to extend the protection to corporal punishment.

The openness of the public school and its supervision by the community afford significant safeguards against the kinds of abuses from which the Eighth Amendment protects the prisoner. … Public school teachers and administrators are privileged at common law to inflict only such corporal punishment as is reasonably necessary for the proper education and discipline of the child; any punishment going beyond the privilege may result in both civil and criminal liability.[4]

Today, thirty-one (31) states plus the District of Columbia banned corporal punishment in public schools; two states – Iowa and New Jersey – extend the prohibition to use in private schools.

Connecticut banned this practice in 1989 and implemented two laws affecting school discipline. The first, General Statutes § 53-20(b)(1), prohibits the maltreatment, torture, overworking, or cruel or unlawful punishment of a child under the age of 19 by anyone with the control and custody of [that child], in any capacity whatsoever.” Likewise, the Connecticut legislature has codified the use of reasonable force in the public school context:

A teacher or other person entrusted with the care and supervision of a minor child for school purposes may use reasonable force to the extent he reasonably believes such to be necessary to (A) protect himself or others from immediate physical injury, (B) obtain possession of a dangerous instrument or controlled substance, as defined in subdivision (9) of section 21a-240, upon or within the control of such minor, (C) protect property from physical damage or (D) restrain such minor or remove such minor to another area, to maintain order.[5]

However, at this point in time, these statutes are inapplicable to private schools in this State. At one Christian school located in Fairfield County, the student-parent handbook outlines the “controlled conditions” under which paddling of students is permitted.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

If you have any questions regarding school discipline, or any education law matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.


[1] “After Complaint, School Relaxes Rule on Opposite Sex Student Spankings,” by Molly McDonough. September 26, 2012: www.abajournal.com/news/article/after_complaint_school_relaxes_rule_on_opposite_sex_student_spankings

[2] “Texas school board changes spanking rules,” by CBS News. September 25, 2012: www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162_57520051/texas-school-board-changes-spanking-rules/

[3] Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 662 (1977).

[4] Id. at 670.

[5] Connecticut General Statutes § 53a-18(6).

Connecticut School Districts and Bullying: What Can Parents Do?

I was greeted this morning with a very unfortunate email.  The email concerned bullying in Westport Schools and included a heart wrenching video of an 8th grade girl claiming to be a victim of bullying in Westport schools. (http://patch.com/A-gcKG) It is just not enough to feel sorry for this victim of bullying, we need to question the effectiveness of the current law and policies in place to avoid the tragic consequences that other towns have dealt with because their students were victims of bullying.

I previously blogged about the revisions to Connecticut’s law against bullying in 2008.  Under Connecticut General Statute section 10-222d, the law requires “any overt acts by a student or group of students directed against another student with the intent to ridicule, harass, humiliate or intimidate the other student while on school grounds, at a school sponsored activity or on a school bus, which acts are committed more than once against any student during the school year.” In addition to definitional changes, the statute requires:

  1.  teachers and other staff members who witness acts of bullying to make written notification to school administrators;
  2. prohibits disciplinary actions based solely on the basis of an anonymous report of bullying;
  3. requires prevention strategies as well as interventions strategies;
  4. requires that parents of a student who commits verified acts of bullying or against whom such bullying occurred be notified by each school and be invited to attend at least one meeting;
  5. requires school to annually report the number of verified acts of bullying to the State Department of Education (DOE);
  6. no later than February 1, 2009, boards must submit the bullying policies to the DOE;
  7. no later than July 1, 2009, boards must include their bullying policy in their school district’s publications of rules, procedures and standards of conduct for school and in all of its student handbooks, and
  8.  effective July 1, 2009, boards must now provide in-service training for its teacher and administrators on prevention of bullying.

Westport responded to the requirements of this statute with a comprehensive bullying policy which can be found on the school district’s website under the tab for parents, and then selecting policies.  Here is the direct link to the policy: (http://www2.westport.k12.ct.us/media/policies/prohibition_against_bullying_5131.911_revised_8.25.2008.pdf)

Armed with Connecticut’s law and Westport’s policy, what should we do as parents, community members, and professionals?  I do not profess to have the answers but at a minimum, we should discuss this with our children, question the school administrators, guidance staff and teachers. Together we should challenge ourselves to make a difference using the channels available to us.  There are ways that we can help to effectuate change before it is too late.  If you know of a child affected by bullying, please act on their behalf.  Not every student will post a video to tell you this is happening. If the school is not addressing the bullying in a meaningful way to eradicate the conduct, legal redress is available and the courts will readily intervene.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact me by telephone in the Firm’s Westport office at (203) 221-3100 or by e-mail at SMaya@Mayalaw.com. Attorney Maya is a partner at Maya Murphy, P.C. Her practice is limited to Education Law and Trusts and Estates.