Under the current Holmdel High School code of conduct, high school students are disciplined for traffic offenses committed off-school grounds. When this driving policy was first discussed years ago, I served on the Holmdel Township Board of Education and argued that this policy both creates poor public policy and exceeds state law. Several board members agreed with my position, but ultimately we were outvoted 5-4 on the issue.
First, I joined fellow board member Ms. Ana Vander Woude in presenting a written statement expressing our policy disagreement with discipline for traffic tickets off-school grounds. While we did not condone poor driving, we wrote that school policies involving such out-of-school issues are “harmful and intrusive as they impede parental discretion, overstep school authority, create due process concerns and interfere with” the school’s educational mission. We maintained that the district should not have school administrators assuming the role of parents in matters unrelated to school, and that traffic laws should be left enforced by the police and adjudicated by the municipal court system.
More relevant today, beyond the policy dimension, I also publicly maintained that disciplining Holmdel High School students for traffic tickets violated state law. At the time, others believed the law was too unclear and advocated waiting for a related court decision before taking action. Sure enough, that long-awaited case was decided last week, and I write because I believe the decision makes it even more clear that the Holmdel policy does indeed violate state law.
In this anticipated case, a concerned parent challenged the legality and constitutionality of the Ramapo Indian Hills High School District’s 2009 policy that allowed the school to take away a student’s extracurricular participation for any “alleged violation of a criminal statute or municipal ordinance,” even if the offense did not relate to “school order or safety.” The New Jersey Commissioner of Education found for the parent, striking the Ramapo policy as illegal, and the Superior Court, Appellate Division unanimously affirmed that ruling 3-0 in a well-reasoned opinion by presiding Judge Jose Fuentes.
First, Ramapo argued that the relevant state law does not govern discipline for “privileges” like sports, just as some in Holmdel have argued state law would not govern on-campus parking. But the court rejected Ramapo’s “privileges” argument, saying state law governed any “consequences,” including a student’s mandatory meeting with a school administrator to discuss punishment. There is little reason a court would see the Holmdel driving policy any differently than that in Ramapo, considering a traffic offense in Holmdel currently triggers a disciplinary meeting with a Holmdel High School vice principal.
As a result, the Ramapo or Holmdel regimes must satisfy state law’s two-part off-campus discipline test: (1) the discipline must be “reasonably necessary for the safety, security, and well-being of the student, fellow students, staff, or school grounds”; and (2) the off-campus conduct must “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” N.J.A.C. 6A:16-7.6.
Interpreting this language, the court in the Ramapo case reiterated that “there must be a nexus between the student’s conduct and the orderly administration of the school” in order to sanction a consequence. Based on this, the court struck the Ramapo policy. “A student could be suspended from participating in extracurricular activities as the result of receiving a citation for littering on a municipal sidewalk” under the Ramapo policy, the court said. “Nothing in [state law] can be read to endorse such a result.”
If littering does not affect the orderly administration of Ramapo High School as a matter of law, I submit that a moving violation on a Saturday drive to the supermarket similarly does not affect the orderly administration of Holmdel High School. As a result, I maintain that the Holmdel disciplinary regime exceeds state law, and I believe the Ramapo decision elucidates the reality that traffic citations off-school grounds lack the required nexus to a school’s operation to survive the aforementioned two-part legal test.
While I certainly have expressed my opinions on the off-campus discipline policy during my time on the Holmdel Township Board of Education, I write this op-ed solely to discuss the legal issue at hand, in light of the recently decided Ramapo case. I have great respect for those who serve on the Holmdel Township Board of Education, and I am confident in their ability to make informed decisions based on the most recent case law that governs the school district.
Mr. Collins is a former member of the Holmdel Township Board of Education (2008-2011) and a third-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law.