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FULLER v. DECATUR PUBLIC SCHOOL BOARD OF EDUCATION

January 11, 2000

ROOSEVELT FULLER, BY HIS PARENTS GRETTA FULLER AND ROOSEVELT HARRIS, GREGORY HOWELL, BY HIS PARENT CYNTHIA HOWELL, TERENCE L. JARRETT, BY HIS PARENT MARILYN JARRETT, ERROL BOND, BY HIS PARENT DELPHINE BOND KENDREX, SHAWN HONORABLE, BY HIS PARENT EUREKA HONORABLE, AND COURTNEY CARSON, BY HIS PARENT RINDA M. CARSON, PLAINTIFFS,
V.
DECATUR PUBLIC SCHOOL BOARD OF EDUCATION SCHOOL DISTRICT 61, SUPERINTENDENT KENNETH ARNDT, SCHOOL BOARD PRESIDENT JACQUELINE GOETTER, AND SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS: TERRY ROBINSON, JAN MANDERNACH, MICHAEL SETINA, PHILLIP WILHELM, AND D.R. ROBERTS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McCUSKEY, District Judge.

  ORDER

On November 30, 1999, Plaintiffs Roosevelt Fuller, Gregory Howell, Terence Jarrett, Errol Bond, Shawn Honorable and Courtney Carson (students) filed their First Amended Complaint (# 29) against Defendants, Decatur Public School Board of Education School District 61 (School Board), Superintendent Kenneth Arndt, School Board President Jacqueline Goetter, and five members of the School Board. The students brought their First Amended Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The students sought declaratory and injunctive relief, essentially seeking an Order reinstating them in school. A trial was held on December 27, 28, and 29, 1999.

The students in this case argue that they were expelled by the School Board for a period of two years because of a "zero tolerance" policy which punished them as a group, denied their constitutional rights and was racially motivated. The students additionally argue that they were stereotyped as gang members and racially profiled by the actions of the School Board. The students claim that, because the fight was of a short duration and that no guns, no knives, and no drugs were involved, no expulsion was warranted for their actions in the fight.

After reviewing the evidence presented at trial, this court finds that the students have failed to meet their burden of proof on all issues presented and are not entitled to a declaratory judgment or injunctive relief. The court further, finds that the School Board did not act illegally, improperly or deny, the students their constitutional rights. The School Board's expulsion of the students will stand.

At the outset, this court wants to emphasize that the students in this case were involved in a violent fight in the stands at a high school football game. None of the students testified at trial and they have never denied their involvement in the fight. This court observed from the videotape presented at trial that the fight involved many individuals raising havoc in the midst of a captive audience of football fans, which included parents, grandparents, teachers and children. Because of the violent nature of the fight, a portion of which was captured on videotape, approximately one-half of the spectators in the bleachers scattered and left the stands to avoid confrontation and possible injury. It is undisputed that seven spectators, six students and one adult, filed accident reports at MacArthur High School following the incident. These reports showed that a 15-year-old female student stated that people landed on her during the fight and when she got up to run she was kicked down by a person involved in the fight and heard her back pop. A 15-year-old male student complained that he was struck in the left cheek and suffered a contusion to his face. In short, this court is not impressed with the students' position that because no knives or guns were used in the melee that it was not a significant fight. Just because no weapons other than fists and feet were used by the students does not mean that innocent bystanders were not harmed, frightened and forced to flee the stands to avoid serious injury.

This court firmly believes that the citizens and students of Decatur should be able to go to a high school football game and watch the contest on the field without worrying about a violent confrontation erupting in the stands which could engulf them in the conflict. If the School Board had failed to take action against these students or otherwise ignored their conduct at the game, the students who were not involved in the fight, as well as the citizens of Decatur, might be led to believe that the School Board was unable to control conduct in the schools.

It is also important to recognize that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently noted that the Supreme Court "`has repeatedly emphasized the need for affirming the comprehensive authority of the States and of school officials, consistent with fundamental constitutional safeguards, to prescribe and control conduct in the schools.'" Boucher v. School Bd. of School Dist. of Greenfield, 134 F.3d 821, 827 (7th Cir. 1998)(quoting Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 507, 89 S.Ct. 733, 21 L.Ed.2d 731 (1969)).

This court has carefully considered each of the claims raised by the students in their First Amended Complaint. The court first concludes that each student received notice of a hearing before an independent hearing officer and before the School Board. Also, each student received a separate hearing before the hearing officer and had an opportunity to appear and present witnesses. Further, each student had a hearing before the School Board and had the opportunity to address the School Board. Accordingly, this court concludes that the students' procedural due process rights were not violated.

Second, this court concludes that the students did not present any evidence which established that the School Board's decision to expel them for engaging in violent behavior was in any way based upon race. The students' evidence consisted solely of statistics which were complied during the course of trial and did not exist prior to trial. These statistics failed to establish that any similarly situated Caucasian students were treated less harshly. Further, Jeffrey Perkins, one of the African American members of the School Board, was called as a witness by the students. Perkins was questioned about the School Board's decision in this case and said that he could not testify that race was "an issue in the decision to expel."

Third, this court concludes that the students completely failed to establish that the School Board had a "zero tolerance policy." The evidence showed that, on August 25, 1998, the School Board adopted a resolution which declared a "no-tolerance position on school violence." However, the evidence presented by the students' own witnesses showed that this resolution had no impact on student disciplinary cases. Perkins testified that he did not recall any discussion by the School Board about the resolution during any expulsion hearings. Dr. Walter Amprey, the students' expert witness, testified that he reviewed the documents related to the discipline of these students and did not recall ever seeing the term "zero tolerance."

Finally, the court concludes that the students cannot challenge the provision prohibiting "gang-like activity" as void for vagueness. The evidence presented before the hearing officer showed that an incident occurred on September 3, 1999, between two members of rival gangs, the Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples. The evidence further showed that the fight on September 17, 1999, was a continuation of this conflict and was a fight between members of these two rival gangs. Based upon this evidence, the hearing officer and the School Board could properly find that the students violated the prohibition against "gang-like activity." Moreover, the students were found to have violated two other rules: the rule prohibiting physical confrontation or violence and the rule prohibiting acts that endanger the well-being of students, teachers or other school employees. The students' conduct clearly violated these rules. The violation of these two rules standing alone would form a sufficient basis for the School Board's expulsion of these students.

This court will now set forth a detailed analysis of the facts of this case, the claims raised by the students and the law supporting the court's decision.

FACTS

The following facts are summarized based upon the testimony the court heard at trial and the joint exhibits which the parties stipulated into evidence. The joint exhibits consisted of all of the documents presented to the independent hearing officer, a transcript of the hearings before the hearing officer, the hearing officer's reports and the records from the relevant School Board meetings.

Roosevelt Fuller (Fuller) and Errol Bond (Bond) were students at Stephen Decatur High School; Gregory Howell (Howell) and Shawn Honorable (Honorable) were students at Eisenhower High School; and Terence Jarrett (Jarrett) and Courtney Carson (Carson) were students at MacArthur High School. All three high schools are located in Decatur, Illinois, and are part of Decatur Public School District No. 61 (District). On Friday, September 17, 1999, a football game was held at Eisenhower High School between Eisenhower and MacArthur High School. Approximately six minutes into the third quarter of the game, a fight broke out in the bleachers on the east end of the football field, the bleachers where fans of MacArthur were sitting. Both Ed Boehm (Boehm), principal at MacArthur, and Walter Scott (Scott), principal at Eisenhower, were present at the game. Boehm testified that the bleachers on the east end were pretty close to being full of spectators, including students, parents, teachers and grandparents. Boehm said the fight started on the north end of the bleachers and traveled all the way to the south end. Because of the fight, the spectators in the east bleachers were scrambling to get away. Boehm said he saw fans "jumping over the rail, coming down trying to get onto the track" and "running up the bleachers trying to get away." According to Boehm, when the fight was over, the bleachers were approximately one-half full. Boehm testified that spectators who were in the east bleachers during the fight expressed fear, stress and turmoil when he talked to them after the fight. Boehm stated that he had never seen a fight of this magnitude in his 27 years in education.

Gary J. Hunt (Hunt), director of human resources for the District, also testified that he was present at the game. He was sitting near the top of the east bleachers when he observed the fight going on below him. Hunt testified that the fight started at the stairwell near the north end of the bleachers and proceeded into the bleachers where it moved along the bleachers from the north end to the south end. He saw people running out of the stands and up the bleachers to get away from the fight. After the fight ended, Boehm and Hunt were following three students suspected of being involved in the fight. Scott attempted to stop the students, and one of the students involved in this action pushed Scott and left the area.

A videotape taken by a spectator seated in the west bleachers was admitted into evidence. The videotape showed approximately the final one-third of the fight. The videotape showed a violent fight where the participants were punching and kicking at each other, with no regard for the safety of individuals seated in the stands watching the game. The videotape also showed that spectators in the bleachers were scrambling to get away from the fight.

On September 23, 1999, Kenneth Arndt (Arndt), Superintendent of Schools for the District, wrote a letter to the parent or guardian of each of the students. Each letter stated that a hearing had been set before a hearing officer, gave the date, time and location of the hearing, and stated that the parent or guardian and the student "are herewith requested to appear" at the scheduled hearing. The letter stated that "[y]ou are not required to attend, however, if you desire you may attend and also have an attorney and witnesses present."

The letter listed the provisions of the District's Student Discipline Policy and Procedures (Discipline Policy) each student was charged with violating. Each student was charged with violating: Rule 10, Gang-Like Activities; Rule 13, Physical Confrontation/Physical Violence with Staff or Students; and Rule 28, Any Other Acts That Endanger the Well-Being of Students, Teachers, or Any School Employee(s). A copy of these provisions was attached to each letter. The letter also stated that the administration was recommending that the student be expelled for two years. Each letter stated that the final decision on expulsion would be made by the School Board. The letter included the date and time of the special meeting of the School Board which had been set to consider the expulsion of each student. The evidence showed that the parent or guardian of each of the students received this letter prior to the hearing.

A separate hearing was held before Dr. David O. Cooprider (Dr. Cooprider) for each of the students. These hearings took place on September 27, 28 and 29, 1999. Dr. Cooprider was the Regional Superintendent for Macon and Piatt Counties until April 1999. He is currently one of the hearing officers under contract to conduct expulsion hearings for the District. At each hearing, a document was introduced into evidence which showed that each student had signed a form stating that he received a copy of the Discipline Policy. Evidence was also presented at each hearing regarding the involvement of that particular student in the fight. This evidence consisted of statements from eyewitnesses and testimony from school administrators regarding their investigation of the fight. The evidence at each of the hearings also included the testimony, report, or both, of Doug Taylor, a Decatur police officer assigned to Eisenhower High School as a police liaison officer, regarding his investigation of the fight. The evidence showed that each of the students was an active participant in the fight.

In addition, at most of the hearings, accident reports were made part of the record. These reports showed that seven bystanders were injured during the fight. These bystanders included six students at MacArthur High School and one adult. The injuries complained of were mainly bruises. However, a 15-year-old female student stated that people landed on her during the fight and when she got up to run she was kicked down by a person involved in the fight and heard her back pop. A 15-year-old male student complained that he was struck in the left cheek and suffered a contusion to his face.

Fuller, Honorable and Carson did not attend their hearings. In addition, no one attended the hearings on their behalf. Howell attended his hearing along with his mother, Cynthia Howell (Ms. Howell), and Theresa Gray of the NAACP. Jarrett and his mother, Marilyn Jarrett, attended his hearing. Bond attended his hearing along with his guardian, Gretta Fuller (Ms. Fuller), and his uncle, Reverend Mark Bond (Reverend Bond). The students who attended their hearings were allowed to question witnesses and present testimony.

Dr. Cooprider prepared a Hearing Officer's Report regarding each of the students. The Report listed all persons who attended the hearing on behalf of the District and on behalf of the student. The Report also listed the exhibits entered into the record and summarized the testimony presented by each witness. Dr. Cooprider concluded, based upon the evidence presented at each hearing, that "there is ample evidence that the incident may fairly be characterized as violent physical confrontation, and certainly as actions which endangered students, school personnel, and school visitors." He also concluded that each of the six students was a significant participant in the September 17, 1999, incident. Accordingly, in each Report, Dr. Cooprider recommended that the student be expelled for two years.

On October 1, 1999, the School Board held a special meeting to consider the expulsion recommendation of Dr. Cooprider regarding Fuller and Jarrett. The School Board voted to go into closed executive session to discuss the student disciplinary cases." Two persons from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition were allowed to address the Board during the closed session. The School Board then reviewed the videotape of the fight at Eisenhower High School on September 17, 1999. The School Board also reviewed Dr. Cooprider's Reports regarding Fuller and Jarrett. Fuller and his mother, Ms. Fuller, were present at the hearing and were allowed to address the School Board in closed session. Reverend Bond also addressed the School Board on behalf of Fuller. The School Board returned to open session and voted to expel Fuller for two years. In a separate vote, the School Board also voted to expel Jarrett for two years.

On October 4, 1999, the School Board held a special meeting to consider Dr. Cooprider's expulsion recommendation regarding Howell, Bond, Carson and Honorable. Again, the School Board voted to go into closed executive session to discuss the student disciplinary cases. In closed session, the School Board reviewed the videotape of the incident at the football game. Howell then was allowed to appear before the School Board with his mother, Ms. Howell, and Dr. Jeanelle Norman (Dr. Norman). They asked that Howell be allowed to withdraw from school. The School Board agreed to allow Howell to withdraw. A document was signed by Howell and Ms. Howell which stated that Ms. Howell was voluntarily withdrawing her son from school, in lieu of having an expulsion hearing.

Bond, his father, and a representative of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition were allowed to address the School Board on behalf of Bond. No one appeared to speak on behalf of Carson or Honorable. The School Board reviewed Dr. Cooprider's Reports regarding Bond, Carson and Honorable. The School Board returned to open session and, in separate votes, voted to expel Bond, Carson and Honorable for two ...


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