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Knight v. Bd. of Education





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Livingston County; the Hon. WILLIAM T. CAISLEY, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff Kevin J. Knight, a minor, by his father and next friend, brought suit in the Circuit Court of Livingston County seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against defendants Board of Education of Tri-Point Community Unit School District No. 6J: Glenn Anderson, William E. Malone, Leon Malone, George Haley, H. Roy Harms, Donald Metz, and Thomas V. McGinnis, individually, and as the Board of Education of Tri-Point Community Unit School District No. 6J; Howard Jackson; and E. Lesley Conkling. A motion by defendants to dismiss the complaint was denied. After a bench trial on the merits, the trial court entered a judgment for the defendants denying all requested relief. Plaintiff appeals. Pursuant to leave of this court, the American Civil Liberties Union, Illinois Division, and the Illinois State Board of Education have filed briefs amicus curiae suggesting that the judgment be reversed.

Plaintiff was a senior at the defendant district's high school during the 1973-74 school year. He did not attend classes on April 25 and 26, 1974. The school administration did not excuse the absences. In plaintiff's complaint and at trial, he contended that the refusal to excuse these absences deprived him of procedural due process of law under the State and Federal constitutions. He has abandoned this position on appeal, relying rather on his other contentions that the consequences imposed upon him as a result of the refusal of the school administration to excuse the absences deprived him of substantive due process of law and equal protection of law contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment and article I, section 2 of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 and otherwise violated his legal rights. On the days plaintiff was absent, the defendant school district had in force the following regulation:

"Under an unexcused absence, makeup work shall be done without credit and grades shall be lowered one letter grade per class."

The complaint alleged that plaintiff's grades were lowered two letter grades per class for the final quarter of the year as a result of the policy. The complaint requested that defendants Jackson, the district superintendent, and Conkling, the school principal, be ordered by writ of mandamus to have plaintiff's grades recomputed for the quarter without consideration being given to the absences; that the old grades be ordered expunged; that the policy set forth in the rule be declared void and that all defendants be enjoined from enforcing the rule.

During the school quarter in question, plaintiff was enrolled in business English, photography, physical education and "food products management and service." The latter course was taught at a vocational center at nearby Pontiac. The teacher for that course did not consider the unexcused absences in grading plaintiff. The teachers in the other three courses testified that because of the school rule on unexcused absences, they lowered plaintiff's grade one but not two letters in their courses. The photography grade was lowered from B- to C, business English C to D, and physical education B to C.

Defendant Jackson testified that he considered truancy to be a serious problem and that he considered the grade reduction method the best sanction to impose to combat truancy. He considered corporal punishment and suspension to be too drastic and unworkable. He further stated that after-school detention was also unworkable because 80% of the students were transported to and from school by buses and that it would be difficult to provide transportation for the detainees. James Langan, superintendent of an adjacent district, testified that he also considered truancy to be a serious problem, difficult to deal with, and that he felt that a policy of grade reduction by school rule applicable to all pupils rather than a discretionary application by each teacher was the best method of handling the problem. Kenneth Midkiff, co-ordinator of student affairs for the office of the State superintendent of public instruction, on the other hand, testified that he considered the rule to be poor educational policy and that a more reasonable method of imposing sanctions for truancy would be to give the truant a failing grade for the day and to supplement the punishment with detention.

In ruling for the defendants, the trial judge stated that he did not personally agree with the wisdom of the rule but did not find it to be patently unreasonable or arbitrary.

The amici curiae join plaintiff in arguing that the defendant district's rule on unexcused absences violates the unexcused pupil's substantive due process rights under both State and Federal constitutions and that in this case certain of plaintiff's grades were so affected by the rule as to deprive him of substantive due process. As applied to the actions of a State agency upon an individual, the Illinois due process clause guarantees the same rights as does the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (See Ill. Ann. Stat., Ill. Const., art. I, § 2, Constitutional Commentary (Smith-Hurd 1971).) We are not advised of any case directly in point with the instant case.

Both due process clauses protect against a deprivation of "life, liberty or property without due process of law." The substantive rights which plaintiff claims to have been violated in this case are incident to the receipt of an education. The Illinois Constitution of 1970 provides, in part:

"Goal-Free Schools.

A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.

The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free." Ill. Const., art. X, § 1.)

In Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 42 L.Ed.2d 725, 95 S.Ct. 729, the Court affirmed an order of a district court enjoining an Ohio school district from suspending two pupils. A State statute authorized school districts to suspend pupils for a period not to exceed 10 days for misbehavior. Neither the legislature nor the school district had implemented the legislation with procedural rules for notice and hearing prior to suspension. Ohio statutes, like the Illinois constitutional provision on education, provided that all youths of certain age were entitled to a free public school education. The court reasoned that the knowledge and skill to be gained by the education guaranteed by the State was a property right and that a suspension from school impaired the ability to gain knowledge and skill during the suspension, thus impairing that property right. The court also stated that the damage to the pupil's reputation resulting from a permanent record of the alleged misconduct was an impairment of the pupil's liberty. Because the pupil's property rights and liberty had been impaired without a hearing under ...

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