Restraint and Seclusion

The use of restraint and seclusion in schools continues to be a high priority for state and federal policy makers. Ohio’s first regulations specifically addressing restraint, seclusion, and positive behavior intervention and supports took effect in 2013 as Ohio Administrative Code (OAC) 3301-35-15. In June 2018, the General Assembly passed House Bill (HB) 318, also known as “the SAFE Act”. This law addresses a variety of student discipline issues, including a requirement to rewrite Ohio’s restraint and seclusion regulations.

Ohio Administrative Code 3301-35-15 was due for review by August 2018, but the process has not been completed. HB 318 set a deadline for revision of OAC 3301-35-15 by early February 2019. Again, no revisions were made. However, work is ongoing at the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) and various stakeholder groups are being presented with draft rule revisions this summer. It is anticipated that in the coming months, there will be a proposed rule presented for public comment and consideration by the State Board of Education.

In the meantime, existing requirements for the use of restraint and seclusion remain in place. This includes absolute restrictions on certain practices, and significant data tracking and reporting requirements. The summer “break” is a good time for administrators to review existing training programs, plan for which staff members may require additional training due to student assignments and program changes, and review reporting data for the recently completed school year to determine if there are any patterns or gaps that need to be addressed.

While the use of restraint and seclusion generally should be rare, consistent reports of zero incidents may raise a red flag. A recent report from the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that nine of the nation’s 30 largest school districts reported no incidents of restraint or seclusion in the last reported year (2015-2016). The GAO and U.S. Department of Education presume that such reports are inaccurate, with the GAO reporting that, “We are encouraged that Education recognizes the seriousness of this issue and the data quality issues it has allowed to persist when districts inappropriately and inaccurately report zero incidents of restraint and seclusion.”

In addition to whatever new requirements might be rolled out by the U.S. Department of Education to address its concerns, long-proposed federal legislation is expected to be reintroduced later this year. The bill, called the “Keeping All Students Safe Act,” is likely to overlap significantly with Ohio’s restraint and seclusion regulations.

Student Dress Code

A Federal District Judge recently ruled that a charter school dress code policy which required girls to wear skirts and prohibited girls from wearing pants or shorts, violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Many challenges in the past have rested on First Amendment grounds regarding freedom of expression. However, this case was brought on a theory of gender discrimination.

The Plaintiffs argued that the girls suffered tangible disadvantages due to the policy. The court found that the Plaintiffs established that “the girls are subject to a specific clothing requirement that renders them unable to play as freely during recess, requires them to sit in an uncomfortable manner in the classroom, causes them to be overly focused on how they are sitting, distracts them from learning, and subjects them to cold temperatures on their legs.”

The Defendant, the Charter Day School, argued the dress code was designed to garner mutual respect between the boys and the girls, particularly in that the skirts represented visual cues to promote respect between the two sexes. Striking down the policy, the school argued, would remove those visual cues and hinder a sense of respect for the opposite sex. The Court noted that even if these were legitimate interests of the state, the school failed to show how the policy advanced such interests.

The Court further noted that school dress code policies have been upheld by numerous courts and that the state does have legitimate interests in the grooming and dress of students attending schools supported by the state. However, these interests must be addressed in a uniform, gender-neutral way that does not penalize a student simply for being one sex or the other.

Students’ Right to Protest: A Reflection on the Tinker Decision

In 1965, a group of siblings and a family friend in Des Moines, Iowa, decided to wear black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War. When the principals of their schools became aware of the plan, they developed a policy prohibiting such protests – a policy that the students chose to ignore. As a result, Mary Beth Tinker, her brother, and a high school friend were suspended from school. This is the backdrop of one of the most famous student free-speech cases in American history: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Comm. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 509 (1969).  Indeed, most school administrators can quote a prominent observation of the Supreme Court as it relates to speech: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

In light of the current national movement of planned student protests around the country, this case provides important considerations on the authority of school officials to censor student expression. While the High Court held that expression in certain cases may be suppressed, it cautioned school officials that they must be able to show that their action “was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompanies an unpopular viewpoint.”

As student protests on a national level gain steam and momentum, school officials must plan a response that is viewpoint neutral and measured in light of potential school rule infractions. Even when a student’s viewpoint is not unpopular, districts should consider imposing appropriate discipline if only to neutralize future viewpoint discrimination claims from students who wish to engage in speech or leave campus for a less popular reason. When student speech is coupled with other student expression such as walking out of class in protest of gun violence in schools, school officials maintain their obligation to adhere to student attendance laws, as any time away from school is time away from instruction and may result in truancy or disciplinary consequences. However, districts must remain aware that they can no longer suspend students for attendance violations. Disciplinary consequences are best reserved for the act of cutting class or causing substantial disruption to the educational environment.

First Amendment Free Speech Rights: Can Student Athletes #TakeTheKnee?

During a speech in Alabama on September 22, President Trump made some comments that provoked a number of professional athletes to kneel or sit – or even stay in the locker room – during the national anthem on Sunday’s NFL games. In a nutshell, Trump said that NFL owners should fire their players who disrespect the U.S. flag. This statement generated repercussions among professional athletes, who enjoy the same constitutional rights to freedom of speech that others in the country enjoy. Kneeling during the national anthem (which gained the hashtag #TakeTheKnee on Twitter), although not verbal speech, is a form of nonverbal speech or expression that is protected under the First Amendment.

Whereas the U.S. Constitution provides the U.S. government with certain powers, the Bill of Rights restricts those governmental powers by providing people within the United States with the named rights, such as freedom of speech. Therefore, constitutional rights must be honored by governmental actors, including public school districts. Because the NFL is not a public employer, it does not have a constitutional obligation to allow these freedoms.

Public school districts, however, are governmental actors. Because the government must allow constitutional rights, our question then becomes, do student athletes have the same constitutional rights to freedom of speech? Or more simply, can student athletes #TakeTheKnee?

Participation in extracurricular activities is a privilege and not a right protected by law. Under Ohio law, boards of education are permitted to adopt a policy authorizing district employees who coach a pupil activity program to prohibit a student from participating in the program under conditions of the policy. Such conditions may include requirements such as maintaining a certain minimum grade point average or acting in a manner that does not bring discredit or dishonor upon the school. If a student violates the policy, he or she may be removed from the activity program without due process requirements.

A school may not impose a condition that violates a student’s constitutional rights. Although students do not necessarily have the same constitutional rights in the school as they do in public, they do not lose their constitutional rights when they enter the school building.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals once heard two separate court cases centered on free speech rights of the First Amendment. In both cases, students were disciplined for off-campus social media posts. The court issued two opposing opinions on the same day in these two similar cases. This led to the full court panel rehearing the two cases. The full panel held that the speech was protected by the First Amendment in both cases. The takeaway from these cases is that courts are often willing to protect a student’s free speech rights – even if the speech is offensive and hurtful – if a school cannot prove that the speech sufficiently disrupted the educational process.

In the 1969 landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case regarding whether students’ political actions would be protected under the free speech clause of the First Amendment. Several students wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, despite the school’s policy prohibiting students from wearing these armbands. The Court held that the students’ wearing these armbands was considered protected speech under the First Amendment and declared the school’s policy unconstitutional. The Court noted that this action led to no disruption of or interference with the educational environment.

Going back even further, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion on Flag Day (June 14) in 1943 that a state may not compel unwilling school children to salute and pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States. Furthermore, any discipline brought on by “an act of disrespect, either by word or action” was also prohibited. Ohio even has a statute (R.C. 3313.602) that states that no student shall be required to participate in the pledge of allegiance.  The bottom line is that schools may not require students to participate in acts of patriotism, such as recitation of the pledge of allegiance or participation in a certain manner during the national anthem.

Additional Graduation Pathways for Class of 2018

House Bill 49, the budget bill, provides two additional pathways for graduation for the class of 2018. In short, the first option is an academic pathway, and the second is a career-tech pathway. (See also the Ennis Britton blog post on the new graduation requirements.)

Note: This applies only to the class of 2018, or as the bill states, to students who entered ninth grade for the first time on or after July 1, 2014, but prior to July 1, 2015.

Academic Pathway

In addition to meeting other graduation requirements as follows:

  • Take all end-of-course exams (or the private charter school assessment)
  • Retake at least once any end-of-course exam in English language arts or math on which the student scored lower than 3
  • Complete the required units of instruction

a student must meet two of the following requirements:

  • Have an attendance rate of at least 93 percent during 12th grade
  • Take at least four full-year or equivalent courses during 12th grade and has at least a 2.5 GPA (on a 4.0 scale) for the 12th-grade courses
  • Complete a capstone project during 12th grade
  • Complete 120 hours of work in a community service role or in a position of employment, including internships, work study, co-ops, and apprenticeships
  • Earn 3 or more transcripted credit hours under College Credit Plus at any time during high school
  • Pass an AP or IB course and receive a score of 3 or higher on the corresponding AP exam or 4 or higher on the corresponding IB exam at any time during high school
  • Earn at least a Level 3 score in each of the Reading for Information, Applied Mathematics, and Locating Information components of the job skills assessment, or a comparable score on similar components of a succeeding version of that assessment
  • Obtain an industry-recognized credential or a group of credentials equal to at least 3 points total
  • Satisfy the conditions required to receive the OhioMeansJobs-readiness seal

Career-Tech Pathway

In addition to meeting other requirements as follows:

  • Take all end-of-course exams (or the private charter school assessment)
  • Complete the required units of instruction
  • Complete an ODE-approved career-tech training program that includes at least four career-tech courses

a student must meet one of the following requirements:

  • Attain a cumulative score of at least proficient on required career-tech assessments or test modules
  • Obtain an industry-recognized credential or group of credentials worth 12 points
  • Demonstrate successful workplace participation, based on a written agreement signed by the student, a district representative, and an employer or supervisor, by completing 250 hours of workplace experience and receiving regular, written, positive evaluations from the employer or supervisor and a district representative




Ohio Supreme Court Finds School’s Backpack Search Constitutional

In a unanimous opinion, the Ohio Supreme Court has held that a school’s search of an unattended bag, and the two subsequent searches that initiated from the initial search, were constitutional. The court held that the searches served a compelling governmental interest in protecting the safety of the students. Two lower courts had ruled that the subsequent searches were unconstitutional and thus suppressed the evidence found in those searches – including ammunition and a gun.

Whetstone High School student James Polk left a book bag on his school bus. The bus driver found the book bag and gave it to the safety and security resource coordinator, Robert Lindsey, who checks the buses to ensure that no students are remaining on board. Lindsey was not a police officer. Based on the high school’s practice of searching unattended book bags to identify the owner and to ensure the contents are not dangerous, Lindsey opened the bag and saw some papers and notebooks, along with Polk’s name written on one of the papers (search 1). He had heard that Polk was possibly in a gang, so he took the bag immediately to the principal’s office, where together they conducted a complete search of the book bag (search 2).

In conducting search 2, the principal and Lindsey found bullets in the book bag and then contacted a police officer. When the police officer arrived, they found Polk and searched him and the book bag he was carrying (search 3). They found a handgun in the book bag during search 3.

On trial for conveyance or possession of a deadly weapon or dangerous ordnance in a school-safety zone, Polk asked the court to suppress the evidence – both the bullets and the handgun – arguing that the searches were unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, which protects from unreasonable searches and seizures. Both the trial court and the court of appeals granted his motion to suppress the evidence, holding that search 1 – Lindsey’s initial opening of the bag enough to see Polk’s name on a document – was the only legitimate search. The other two searches, the courts held, were unconstitutional.

In general, under the Fourth Amendment, a police officer must have probable cause and a search warrant to conduct a search. However, courts have held that school searches may be conducted under a lesser standard of reasonable suspicion: justified at inception and reasonable in scope. In this case, the Ohio Supreme Court was tasked with determining whether the search protocol used was reasonable through balancing the government’s interest in safety and security against the student’s privacy interests.

Balance graphic

The court centered on the constitutionality of search 2: whether it was permissible for the principal and Lindsey to conduct a full search of the student’s bag, when search 1 provided them with the identity of the owner of the unattended book bag.

In its finding, the court determined that it was appropriate for Whetstone High School to conduct complete searches of unattended book bags to ensure that they do not contain dangerous contents. Anything less than a complete search would not be enough to ensure safety and security for students. Key to this determination was that Whetstone High School required searches of unattended book bags to not only identify the owners but also to verify that the contents of the book bag are not dangerous. This was their protocol, albeit unwritten. Further, the search protocol was appropriate, reasonable, and reflective of the school’s obligation to keep students safe in a time when schools face a myriad of security concerns (e.g., school shootings, bomb threats, terrorist attacks). As a result, search 1 was inadequate in the court’s mind as it did not advance the school’s interest in ensuring safety and security of its students. Search 2 was required to fulfill this interest.

Additionally, the court found that the student’s expectation of privacy in his unattended book bag was “greatly diminished.” A person’s reasonable expectation of privacy diminishes when an item is lost or unattended, to the extent that the contents may be examined by the person who has found the item. Furthermore, a lost item in a closed container such as a book bag would carry an even lesser expectation of privacy, especially in a school setting, which must ensure the safety and security of all students.

Therefore, in balancing the school’s strong interest in protecting its students against Polk’s low expectation of privacy in the unattended book bag, the court determined that search 2 was reasonable and appropriate because the school needed to not only identify the owner of the book bag but also ensure the contents of the book bag were not dangerous. The court did not comment on search 3 but instead left the resulting judgment on that search to the lower court to make, consistent with this new decision.

State v. Polk, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-2735.