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School's `zero tolerance' weapons policy violates student's due process rights.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held in October that a school's policy of expelling students who possess dangerous weapons on school property violated the due process rights of a student who claimed he did not know that he was in possession of a dangerous weapon. (Seal v. Morgan, 229 F.3d 567 (6th Cir. 2000).)

The case was brought by Dustin Wayne Seal, who was expelled from high school after a friend's knife was found in the glove compartment of his car while it was parked at the school. Seal said he did not know that the knife was in his car while it was on school property.

After his expulsion, Seal sued the board of education, alleging that the expulsion violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The trial court set the case for trial on the issue of damages only, effectively granting Seal summary judgment on his due process claim.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit set forth the applicable standard of review. Government actions that do not affect fundamental rights or liberty interests and do not involve suspect classifications--which are based on certain characteristics, such as race and national origin--will be upheld if they are rationally related to a legitimate state interest, the court said. Applying this standard, the court found that suspending or expelling a student for weapons possession if the student did not knowingly possess any weapon would not be rationally related to any legitimate state interest.

Writing for the majority, Judge Ronald Lee Gilman observed, "No student can use a weapon to injure another person, to disrupt school operations, or, for that matter, [for] any other purpose if the student is totally unaware of its presence." Indeed, Gilman emphasized, "The entire concept of possession--in the sense of possession for which the state can legitimately prescribe and mete out punishment--implies knowing or conscious possession."

The school board had argued that the criminal law requirement of knowing or conscious possession should not apply in school suspension cases. The board insisted that its "zero tolerance policy" required the expulsion regardless of whether Seal knew the knife was in his car.

Under this reasoning, the court noted, a student who had a knife planted in his backpack without his knowledge would be subject to mandatory expulsion even if school administrators and board members believed that the knife had been planted. The board's zero tolerance policy would surely be irrational, the court found, if it punished students who did not knowingly or consciously possess a weapon.

Accordingly, the court remanded the case for the trial court to consider whether Seal consciously possessed the knife.
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Author:Levy, Stephanie
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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