J was arrested for the 2nd incident in the hallway of Smyrna Middle School. A discipline hearing was scheduled for September 7th, 2016. J did not start school with his peers because he was still “suspended” and was awaiting potential expulsion pending the results of the discipline hearing. After the meeting was rescheduled three times, the day of the discipline hearing came, almost four and half months after J was arrested for the 2nd incident with P.
The hearing began. In attendance was Hearing Officer Bob Powell, Assistant Superintendent Patrik Williams, Smyrna Middle School Principal Steve Gott and Associate Principal John Camponelli, School Resource Officer Jessica Weller, Smyrna School District Attorney Allyson DiRocco, J, J’s mom, P, and P’s mom. As well, J’s aunt attended. A recorder was also hired to be the stenographer for the hearing.
Powell gave the following statement about the purpose of the meeting:
The purpose of this hearing is to consider a recommendation by the Assistant Superintendent to expel a student, J, assigned to Smyrna Middle School.
For the purpose of reporting the results of this hearing and action by the Board of Education at the public portion of a meeting, j will be referred to by the code number 2016-43.
I would like the record to show that a certificate of mailing letter was sent indicating the date, time, and place of hearing. A copy of that notification is enclosed in the materials presented. And today’s hearing constitutes due process for the student and his family.
All right. Today’s date is Wednesday, September 7, 2016, and it is 12:20pm. We are now in session for the purpose of a student discipline case.
Powell swore everyone in but there seemed to be some confusion about who had to be sworn in.
Powell: And you will be sworn in, too, Ms. DiRocco?
(Ms. DiRocco shakes head no.)
Powell: No, you are not? Okay. All right.
The Hearing Officer did not know if the district’s attorney should be sworn in or not.
This was the opening statement from DiRocco:
Good morning. We are here today for the expulsion hearing for J, who is a student at Smyrna Middle School. We will present evidence and witnesses today who will testify that J engaged in conduct at school that warrants a recommendation for an expulsion pursuant to the Student Code of Conduct.
Specifically, J, on more than two occasions, verbally harassed a female student about her Muslim religion, referred to her as a terrorist, and made other derogatory and harassing comments to her.
The comments offended her and, as a result, the student feels uncomfortable and fearful to wear her religious garb to school. His conduct amounted to a violation of the code of conduct which is titled a “hate crime,” which is on Page 15 in the code, which we will go through later with the witnesses.
But “hate crime” is defined as harassment… is any actions or statements that intimidate, offend, or defame the dignity or self esteem of individuals or groups. Harassment may include, but is not limited to, verbal harassment or abuse, repeated remarks or jokes with demeaning implications or other offensive behavior. Harassment also includes intimidating, offensive, or defaming behavior or materials directed at an individual because of that individual’s race, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, or religion.
As a result of J’s conduct also, he was arrested and charged with a felony. The District has received the Attorney General’s report notifying the District of the criminal charges which are still pending.
Today you will hear from a few different witnesses. You will hear from the student victim. You will also hear from the administrators who investigated the incidents, Mr. John Camponelli and Mr. Steve Gott. You will hear from Detective Weller, who arrested the student and investigated also. And you will hear from Mr. Williams concerning the violation of the code of conduct and the recommendation of the district.
Because J… because his presence in the school represents an ongoing threat to the health, welfare, and safety of the students and staff at the Smyrna Middle School… at the Smyrna Middle School, sorry, the administration recommends an expulsion for 180 days with alternative placement.
And I did make this request earlier, but any students that are mentioned, their names are mentioned, I would just ask that their initials be used, other than J.
At that point, J’s mom gave her opening statement:
Well, none of the statements given by the plaintiff or her mother are true. They are all false or out of context. We are going to be presenting the video of the victim’s interview with Officer Weller, along with awards from previous years in the school. J has missed multiple days of school this year and couldn’t start with his friends. This is unfair to him. And I just hope we get this cleared up today.
The first witness was P. She and her mother were sworn in by Powell. The video of P’s interview with Officer Weller at the Smyrna Police Station played and DiRocco asked questions.
DiRocco: And just to clarify, you talked about in your interview three separate incidents; is that right?
DiRocco: Okay. So the first incident, can you tell me what J said to you at the first?
P: The first incident was also in home ec. That’s when he was just yelling (inaudible)
The Reporter: He was yelling what?
P: Allah Akbar.
DiRocco: Can you spell it?
P: A-L-L-A-H, A-K (inaudible)
DiRocco: And that’s what you described as the hand motion that he was also doing at the same time?
DiRocco: And how did you interpret that, his actions and the words.
P: I heard him saying it, but I didn’t want to let it get to me. At that time, that’s the first time.
P: I let it slide. And then the second time, that’s when he was in class, and he said, “I can smell a terrorist making bombs, making guns.”
DiRocco: Okay. So the first time you never said anything to any of your teachers; right?
DiRocco: So then we go to the second time. That was around November of 2015?
DiRocco: So the last school year in November when you were in seventh grade; right?
DiRocco: Okay. And you just said what you recall him saying to you at that time?
DiRocco: And then was there another incident after that?
P: In the hallway upstairs.
P: That’s when I was passing by. And he came, and he like said “terrorist” in a low voice.
DiRocco: Okay. And that would have been in April…
DiRocco: …of your seventh-grade year?
DiRocco: Last school year. Okay. Do you remember writing… giving written statements?
DiRocco then verified P’s written statement from the November 2015 and April 2016 incidents.
DiRocco: Okay. So as a result of what happened in school and the comments that were made to you by J, how has that affected you?
P: It has affected me to the point where I don’t want to wear my hijab in school anymore because I feel unsafe. I feel as if I’m going to get targeted. And I’m just fed up with being called names. I don’t want to be a part of it.
DiRocco: Okay. I don’t have any other questions for P.
J’s mother was given a chance to ask P questions.
J’s mother: Okay. The incident that happened in home ec, it wasn’t just J at the table that he was at; correct?
J’s mother: There was another child there?
J’s mother: And in speaking with J, it was the other student that actually said that he smelled bombs, like someone was making bombs; or J would have to actually say exactly what he said. It was to that fact. And…
DiRocco: I do have to object. I mea, if there is a question for the witness, then that would be fin. But if it’s going to be testimony from J, then I would object to it coming out now as opposed to later when he has an opportunity to present his testimony.
Notice how DiRocco prevents J’s mother from having P clarify her perception of the events from November, 2015?
J’s mother: Okay. So there was another student there. And the other student… actually, what J had said was just reacting to what the student said and had nothing to do with P at all. I believe it had more to do with they were already evacuated out of school once for a bomb threat. And the two boys, that’s what they were discussing and making jokes over, which isn’t anything funny to laugh at anyway, but it had nothing to do with P that day in home ec. I don’t even know why she was questioned after that, because nobody… somebody had made the statement that he pointed at her. And that didn’t happen, either. He was pointing at his friend across from him that was making the statements about smelling gunpowder and like somebody is making a bomb and…
DiRocco: Mr. Powell, I would just object to the testimony at this point from mom or…
DiRocco: …the student, because at this time it’s now just time to cross examine the witness.
DiRocco: And then later mom and J would have an opportunity to testify as well as give a closing statement.
J’s mother: Okay.
Powell: All right.
J’s mother: That’s all I have.
Powell: Okay. Now, you will have your turn.
J’s mother: No problem.
DiRocco: Okay. So I don’t have anymore questions for P, and I would ask that she and her mom be excused, if that’s okay.
Powell: All right. So they are going to sit outside?
DiRocco: They are going to leave, unless you want them for any reason. You don’t have any questions. Mom is done her questioning. And I’m done my questioning. So, if there is no problem with it, then I would ask that they just be excused.
J’s mother: I haven’t asked any questions.
DiRocco: You can. This is your opportunity to ask P questions.
Powell: Yeah. It’s new for me, too, because normally I don’t have to… you know, I don’t have attorneys in here. So yeah. So you are done?
DiRocco: I am done.
Powell: Okay. Now, mom…
DiRocco: Has an opportunity.
Powell: To give testimony?
DiRocco: To ask P questions about what she testified here today.
J’s mother: Okay. We will give it a shot.
I have to imagine, over the years, Smyrna had several expulsions. I don’t know how many discipline hearings Powell was the Hearing Officer for, but he seemed oblivious to how this was going to go with the district’s attorney present. It seemed like DiRocco was controlling the hearing which put J and his mother at a distinct disadvantage. I imagine J’s mother could have retained an attorney. But we can’t forget attorneys cost a lot of money. And she had to get an attorney for J’s criminal charges as well which would result in a criminal trial for that. J’s mother did tell me that she did not have the money to hire an attorney for the discipline hearing. In DiRocco’s defense, had this been an actual trial in a court of law, her objection would have been correct. But this was a discipline hearing for a school district and at no time did the hearing officer explain the procedures and how the discipline hearing would work.
J’s mother began asking P questions.
J’s mother: How long have you been Muslim?
P: I have been Muslim for going on four years now.
J’s mother: Four years. Okay. And four years. And you stated that you had issues already in JBM and with a substitute or a teachers? That’s correct, right?
J’s mother: And, oh, I was unclear about the New York City thing. I didn’t know what that was about at all that was stated on the video. Something was mentioned about the New York City thing.
P’s mother: Can I say something about that, if you don’t mind. If you do have a question, I’m just saying, or no?
DiRocco: If P doesn’t… do you know anything about what she is talking about?
J’s mother: It was stated on the video, the New York City thing.
SRO Weller: By myself, not P.
DiRocco: Officer Weller will testify next.
SRO Weller: I can’t answer any questions for you right now.
DiRocco: But she will testify next, and you can ask her…
J’s mother: Okay. Gotcha. So that would be a question for her. Gotcha. Oh. Okay. And then the meaning behind the Allah Akbar? That statement, what is the meaning behind that?
P: That Allah Akbar, that’s post law (inaudible) Islamic culture is a God that they pray to.
J’s mother: Okay. That’s all I have for P.
Powell excused P from the hearing but did ask that she and her mother wait in the office. DiRocco called School Resource Officer Jessica Weller to testify.
DiRocco: Okay. Detective Weller, are you… well, what’s your position in the School District and with the Smyrna Police Department?
SRO Weller: For the Smyrna Police Department, I am a detective. I am currently assigned to the Smyrna School District as a School Resource Officer.
DiRocco: And how many years have you been doing this?
SRO Weller: As a School Resource Officer, this is my fourth year with the Smyrna School District. And I did a partial year with Lake Forest School District before I came to Smyrna.
DiRocco: Are you familiar… well, first of all, we viewed that video. Is that you interviewing P?
SRO Weller: Yes.
DiRocco: And are you familiar with J?
SRO Weller: Yes.
DiRocco: Did you arrest him?
SRO Weller: Yes.
DiRocco: And what were the charges against him?
SRO Weller: Do you have my report?
SRO Weller: My police report? Okay. With hate crime and harassment.
Why didn’t the district attorney have a copy of the police report for a discipline hearing for an incident that took place nearly five months earlier?
DiRocco: Okay. And are those charges still pending at this time.
SRO Weller: Yes.
DiRocco: And did you advise mom, the parents of J, and J in November of 2015 that if his conduct occurred again, that he would be charged with a hate crime criminally?
SRO Weller: I don’t feel comfortable answering questions, considering that there is a pending criminal case.
DiRocco: Okay. Okay. Understood.
SRO Weller: I’m not going to get myself jammed up here.
DiRocco: Understood. I don’t have any other questions.
This is a discipline hearing for a student facing expulsion. Weller refuses to answer any questions when it comes to her role in the events in November of 2015.
Powell: Mom, do you have any questions for Officer Weller?
J’s mother: I was just really wanting to know what the New York City thing was about. I had never heard anything about that before.
SRO Weller: Again, I’m not going to answer any questions about the pending criminal case, like anything to do with her interview other than the fact that I was the person who interviewed her, she was the one interviewed, and I understand him. I have to be able to testify and have integrity and everything with the criminal case, so I’m not going to put anything out there at this point to jeopardize the criminal case.
Powell: I understand.
DiRocco: I don’t have any other questions. And I would ask that she be excused if that’s okay.
Powell: Yes. That’s okay.
Weller did not answer ANY questions except the fact she interviewed P and her mother. Note that absolutely nothing was said about Weller ever interviewing J. When he was arrested, he was not read his Miranda Rights because Weller said they were not going to interrogate J. At what point did the Smyrna Police ever ask J any questions?
To be continued in Part 4: The administrators testify…
I decided to change course a bit on this series. Originally, I was going to put the entire transcript up at the end as part of an appendix. But in writing this part, I felt it was important to put the bulk of the testimony in the article. There are parts that are more procedural, such as the swearing in of the witnesses, that would be repetitive. Because the actual discipline hearing was 69 pages of transcription on the recorder’s part, this will extend the series on Smyrna School District’s Zero Tolerance pipeline. The first two parts, with painstaking attempts on my part, were meant to be chronological in nature. The hearing parts of this series will be straight from the transcription with some questions thrown out there from myself.
If you are just jumping on to this series, here are the links to the Prelude, Parts 1 and 2, and essential reads regarding discipline and Assistant Superintendent Patrik Williams, who is now the Superintendent of the Smyrna School District, in relation to Regulation 616 which was going through changes. Regulation 616 deals with uniform due process procedures for alternative placement meetings and expulsion hearings and plays a major role in the eventual outcome of this case.
As well, I have written the following articles about the Smyrna School District which are unrelated to this series. For the most part, I didn’t have a lot to say about the Smyrna School District until recently, but now news is coming out of the woodwork faster than I can possibly handle! And more news will be made public soon which will make a prior story get MUCH bigger!