Judge rejects Yarmouth honor code challenge

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PORTLAND — A federal judge Tuesday denied a student’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have prevented her from being punished under the Yarmouth High School honor code.

The 16-year-old student – identified in court documents only by the initials S.F. – and her parents filed a lawsuit challenging the code last week in U.S. District Court. They also challenged the girl’s three-week suspension from the varsity lacrosse team and six mandatory meetings with the school’s drug and alcohol counselor, Jill Frame. 

According to the girl’s affidavit, she was told by Assistant Principal Amy Bongard that school administrators knew she had been drinking beer at party, a violation of the Extra Curricular Honor Code, because they saw photos on Facebook of the girl holding what appeared to be a beer can. She said she was not allowed to call her mother until she spoke with Bongard and Frame, and felt she was forced into a confession.

The girl was suspended from lacrosse for two games and must complete mandatory counseling before returning to the team. 

Michael J. Waxman, the student’s attorney, said the School Department should not have the ability to parent or enforce student values. He said he took offense at the manner in which administrators questioned his client about her alleged drinking. This, he said, violated her rights and denied her due process.

Waxman said he wanted the court to determine that the school violated her constitutional rights and discharge the rest of her suspensions.

“Beyond that, I’d like the judge to say the school honor code is overstepping constitutional boundaries.”

But Judge D. Brock Hornby disagreed.

Waxman amended his motion to challenge only the girl’s remaining four meetings with the school-appointed counselor, and not the three-week suspension, but his request was denied.

Hornby said there was little likelihood of success based on the merits of the case, and no irreparable injury was caused to the student based on the school’s honor code. He said the girl was not being expelled from school, and the consequence is a minimal intrusion.

In addition, Hornby could not find substantial evidence of significant interference with parental rights, religious rights, privacy invasion or a violation of the student’s First Amendment rights.

The four-page Yarmouth extra curricular honor code is similar that used by other schools in the area. It outlines core values and must be signed by students and parents before participation in an activity.

It states “students participating in extra curricular activities are expected to refrain from using or having possession of alcohol or any other illicit drug,” and outlines a series of consequences if a student breaks the code.

At Falmouth High School, the code is mandatory and states “any violation of the terms of this policy shall constitute grounds for student discipline, including suspension or expulsion from the school, at the appropriate discretion of the administration and the (School Board).” It states that students who participate in extra-curricular and co-curricular activities are subject to additional rules and sanctions.

At Greely High School in Cumberland, the honor code is in place to “emphasize that academic honesty is a fundamental value of this school community and to inform students of the basic rules of academic honesty. Academic dishonesty can severely damage a student’s standing in the school community. It can affect the student’s reputation among the faculty and peers; grade point average and class rank; college and employment prospects; and eligibility for scholarships.”

Although these guidelines are in place at many high schools in Maine, it is not common to have them challenged in federal court.

The Yarmouth school attorney, Melissa Hewey, wrote a memorandum to the court that “consistent enforcement of high school codes of conduct is not only in the high school’s interest but also in the interest of the general public. Honor codes proscribe illegal and inappropriate behavior, and encourage students to be model citizens.”

Consequences and discussions about behavior and education help students make better decisions about future substance use, she said.

“This should not be in federal court,” Hewey said Tuesday. “There is no basis whatsoever for (the girl) to avoid the consequences of her action.”

David Ray, chairman of the Yarmouth School Committee, said he was confident the court would separate fact from fiction, and said the honor code has been adopted with the full support of the community. 

“The outpouring of support I’ve seen on this matter has been overwhelming,” Ray said. “Any suggestion that the code is applied in a heavy-handed fashion is very far off base. Our administration applies it judiciously, fairly and respectfully.”

In an e-mail Wednesday morning, Bongard said she was pleased with the judge’s ruling and said the code is an important part of her work with students.

“We have great structures in place for collaboration among students, staff, and parents, and we will continue to rely on those structures,” she said. “Our Student Senate, for example, has already expressed an interest in looking at the Honor Code, and we look forward to working with them on the issue.”

Ray said the school and community care about the students, and ultimately want to create an environment where they can learn and be safe.

“This is about giving students the direction and environment where they can make the right choices,” he said.

Superintendent Judy Paolucci said she was pleased by Hornby’s ruling, and said her primary concern is for the well-being of the student. 

Waxman said he was disappointed, but expects the family to proceed with the case. However, he said, he would consider dropping the lawsuit if the town holds a public forum to discuss the code.

“I want the school to discuss this issue transparently,” he said. “That is all I want. I want a big community forum and I want the public to have an opportunity to have a say on this issue. This is not about making money, this is about generating interest on this issue.”

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net