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Friday, February 28, 2020

Judge tosses student's lawsuit challenging 2018 expulsion from Waynesburg high school

Federal Court

By Scott Holland | Jan 10, 2020

Schools 1280

PITTSBURGH – A federal judge has dismissed the complaint of a student expelled from his high school for suspected drug use.

On April 3, Sawyer Cole sued Central Greene School District and several administrators alleging a violation of his constitutional rights concerning his expulsion from Waynesburg Central High School. On June 24, those defendants filed a motion to dismiss. U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy ruled on that motion in an opinion issued Dec. 27.

According to Eddy, Cole argued school officials tried to force him to offer a urine sample for drug analysis when the district’s policy requires a saliva test. At a disciplinary hearing after Cole’s suspension, his father also said his son was ill and under the effects of cold medicine on the day of his suspected drug use.

Though the school expelled Cole because he failed to submit to a urine drug test, he appealed to the Greene County Court of Common Pleas, which overturned the expulsion on Feb. 16, 2018, and reinstated Cole provided he assented to a drug and alcohol evaluation and comply with recommended treatment. 

Cole returned to school and graduated on time. His lawsuit alleges a violation of 14th Amendment due process rights, municipal liability claims in that the district failed to train and supervise administrators, violations of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure and malicious use of process claims.

Eddy said the district’s procedures in the suspension and expulsion process “were constitutionally sufficient” such to defeat Cole’s procedural due process claim and that his substantive due process claim failed because Cole’s right to a free public education is enumerated in the Pennsylvania Constitution, not the U.S. Constitution.

Cole’s municipal liability claims failed, Eddy explained, because he failed to sufficiently allege which formal policies the district supposedly contravened. Further, once Eddy determine Cole’s constitutional rights hadn’t been infringed, it became impossible to hold the district liable for “failure to train and supervise” employees to prevent such an infringement.

Eddy also said the district didn’t violate Cole’s Fourth Amendment rights when a school nurse administered a brief medical exam and a school resource officer reported Cole showed signs of drug use, per his training in that field.

“The search was justified at its inception because there were reasonable grounds for suspecting the search would turn up evidence that (Cole) had violated either the law or the rules of the school,” Eddy wrote. “This is an objective standard. … The nurse simply checked his blood pressure, pulse and pupils. Unlike in the criminal context, where officers need probable cause to conduct a search, a school search is constitutionally permissible if there is ‘a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing.’”

Having dismissed the federal claims, Eddy said, she declined to exercise jurisdiction over the state law claims, including the defendants’ arguments suggesting immunity. Eddy said attempts to amend Cole’s complaint would be futile and dismissed each claim with prejudice.

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