Patrick Wahl is taking the Brandywine School District to court. Last year, his son was suspended for a week. What makes this case fascinating is the fact that his son was punished for what amounts, in my opinion, to a wrongful search. Brandywine’s board made the situation even worse. I can now say this case and that case are the same one. This morning on Facebook, Joseph’s father announced the lawsuit. He gave me permission to copy his post. I could write about what happened, but it means more coming from his father. This is how I got my start in blogging, and I am more than happy to return the favor:
JUSTICE FOR JOSEPH: SUNLIGHT IS THE BEST DISINFECTANT
It has been one year since my son, Joseph Wahl, was escorted out of the middle of a class at Brandywine High School by an administrator in front of his classmates and marched in intimidating silence the very long walk, and down several flights of stairs, to the administrators’ offices without being told where he was going or why. Just eerie silence, even when he asked where he was being taken. Then, his personal possessions were searched without Joseph being informed of so much as the accusation leveled against him. In fact, he still has not been told.
What began as an unconstitutional search quickly became an illegal fishing expedition, with Joseph actually having to assist in the escalating search, opening, explaining and even assembling forgotten items discovered in a crevice of the bag — a shrink-wrapped, credit-card shaped utility tool. After all, the Student Code of Conduct prohibits the defying of any “reasonable request” of any authority figure at the school; an infraction with serious consequences of its own.
Assistant Principal Keith Rolph then meted out a full week suspension for Joseph’s so-called “weapons offense.” And suddenly, Mr. Rolph became chatty. First, he interrogated Joseph about students Joseph did not know and about events elsewhere in the school while Joseph was in class. Joseph’s head was spinning. Then, of all things, Mr. Rolph chose to share with Joseph that while Joseph would be barred from attending swimming practice that afternoon, Mr. Rolph’s own son is a great swimmer, too — over at the private school he gets to attend!
We still don’t know why Mr. Rolph took Joseph out of class and searched his personal possessions. As best we can tell, Mr. Rolph was looking for some other kid named Joe, and Mr. Rolph and his superiors think that “similarity” makes searching the personal possessions of anyone named Joe, the most common of names, to be reasonable. But the Wilmington, Delaware school and its attorney, Mr. James McMackin, have misled, contradicted themselves, and stonewalled, and to this day have refused to explain what actually happened.
Even at the State Board hearing, they offered no coherent answers. We will get to the truth by putting every last one of them under oath in depositions and through discovery, though no parent should ever have to do that to get simple answers to legitimate questions.
After denying Joseph the ability to defend himself prior to the search — without knowing who or what they were looking for, Joseph could not so much as say, “That’s not me” — school and district administrators afterwards systematically stifled the due process to which my son was entitled.
When I arrived at the school in order to pick Joseph up now that he was suspended, Mr. Rolph told me that he had notified the police, and that the police may be contacting Joseph to question him as a suspect in a crime. And when I asked if the suspension could be appealed, Mr. Rolph made up out of whole cloth a one-day deadline to send such an appeal to Principal Simmons, while he intentionally withheld material facts from us.
Principal Simmons did not respond to the appeal, even though the Code of Conduct’s “Grievance Procedures When a Suspension Has Occurred” specifically required him to do so — a promise that once made by the school, it is obligated by law to keep. Joseph’s immediate suspension also violated the Code of Conduct’s “stay-put” provision, which was meant to allow Joseph to stay in school during the appeal process guaranteed to him.
I seldom post about my children, but I’ll tell you a few things about Joseph. He has a cumulative 3.9 GPA at Brandywine. He is the captain of both the varsity baseball team and the varsity swimming team. He has donated over 130 volunteer service hours in addition to working part-time at Staples, where he has been named “Employee of the Month” several times. He was selected by Brandywine High School as one of the two juniors to represent the school in DYLN, the very prestigious Delaware Youth Leadership Network, and was selected by Brandywine High School’s Faculty Council for membership in the National Honor Society based upon careful consideration of his scholarship, leadership, service and character.
A full week suspension is so serious that Joseph’s classmates and teachers concluded that it could be only for a drug or violent offense. In addition to being barred from attending the otherwise required SAT preparation course that week, Joseph lost at least one scholarship — one for which he had worked all year, and which Joseph’s partner ended up winning on his own.
The Delaware State Board of Education has already found that the Brandywine School Board’s decision not to expunge Joseph’s disciplinary record was “in violation of state law,” was “not supported by substantial evidence,” and was “arbitrary or capricious.” In addition, the Office of the Attorney General of the State of Delaware has already found that Mr. John Skrobot and the other elected officials of the Brandywine School Board violated the Freedom of Information Act in their denying Joseph the due process to which he was entitled.
However, though Joseph’s record was ordered expunged by the state over the objections of the Brandywine School District, the district has yet to overturn the suspension itself. The school has not been held accountable in any way. Joseph STILL has to respond affirmatively when asked on applications whether or not he has ever been suspended, and explain it all away. The due process guaranteed to Joseph in the Code of Conduct was denied to him, and Joseph’s civil rights and his property interest in a free public education were denied him as well. Someone has to stand up and tell the out-of-control administrators, “Stop.”
Rather than apologizing for and correcting its unconstitutional search and seizure policy, its intentional withholding of critical information, and its gross misconduct, the school has covered up and stonewalled. They have not overturned their wrongful suspension. They have not revised their policies which violate the Constitution and trample upon student rights. And we continue to accumulate attorney fees simply to obtain the rights guaranteed to us in the school’s own Code of Conduct, already a staggering sum.
Since conducting his reckless, unconstitutional search, Assistant Principal Keith Rolph has been promoted to Acting Principal — Brandywine High School’s fifth principal in six years. Since unlawfully ignoring my appeal, Principal James Simmons has been promoted to Executive Director of Secondary Education for the Brandywine School District.
I understand that speaking publicly about the case opens me to a counterclaim of “defamation.” I also know that in a defamation case, truth is an absolute defense. Their goal may be to drag this case out as long as possible under the cover of darkness until you forget about it. They can drag the case out, but I will see to it that they do so in sunlight.
It could have been your son whose civil rights were trampled upon. For many of you at schools which similarly treat its students as prisoners, it has been your son. The district’s unconstitutional policies and procedures will not stand. They will be changed over the kicking and screaming of the superintendent and his administrators. We will never forsake our assignment: Joseph’s case will speak for all of the students and families who have not been able to fight back against the bullying administrators.
It’s time Superintendent Mark Holodick and his underlings learn how to do their jobs, receive training in the Constitution they are supposed to be teaching, and learn to respect the students entrusted to them. It is inexplicable that the district has fought this case tooth and nail from the very beginning in the defense of no discernible principle whatsoever, instead of apologizing, coming clean, and fixing what’s broken. But, then, they’re not spending their own money — they’re spending yours.
I remember hearing about this story on WDEL last year and thinking “this district is going to get sued!” Why was Joseph Wahl searched that day? I hope this family can find the answers that remain shrouded in secrecy for over a year now. But more importantly, I hope this case changes how things are done in Delaware. School safety is important, don’t get me wrong. But so is due process and justice. We talk about accountability for students all the time, but when the adults have to take that responsibility, things tend to get very quiet. I applaud Patrick Wahl for going the distance on this and not only suing the district but also going public with it before it winds up in some settlement agreement. These kind of things happen all the time but they are covered up by confidentiality agreements and settlement agreements. The schools don’t want the information out there so they force the parents to comply. Patrick Wahl said “No more!”