The story of J and his battle with the Smyrna School District continued. After J was expelled, his mom filed an appeal with the State Board of Education. She also had J’s criminal trial to contend with as well. The trial was set for November 14th.
At some point between the discipline hearing and the criminal trial, J’s mother reached out to Delaware Secretary of Education Dr. Steven Godowsky about the matter. She wanted to know what her options were. She had also spoken with Godowsky after the April 20th hallway incident and the Principal recommended expulsion for J over two weeks later. Two points of contact with Dr. Godowsky. Remember this and bookmark it. It comes back later.
J’s mother explained to me that everyone who came to J’s criminal trial waited for hours at Family Court that day. She had new representation in the form of Melissa Dill. There were other children prepared to testify on J’s behalf. Smyrna School District had witnesses as well. J’s mother made a very difficult decision. She could have let the trial continue and run the risk her son would have a felony on his permanent record. The felony charge was for harassment which would follow him the rest of his life. The other criminal charge, that of a hate crime, had already been dropped. Her decision was a calculated risk. She decided to enter into a plea bargain arrangement with the Delaware Family Court. The felony charge disappeared and J would have a harassment misdemeanor on his record which would fall off.
At this point, I want to ask my readers not to judge J’s mother for this decision. She went through six months of hell at this point. She did not have the finances to continue this fight. The Smyrna School Board, even though their decision in my opinion was faulty and egregious, expelled J for a hate crime and harassment based on their school code of conduct. J’s mother truly did not know how the judge would decide on J’s trial. It was a no-win situation. Did she run the risk of having a felony on her son’s record or attempt to make the matter disappear after some time? She chose the latter. While some see a plea bargain as admitting guilt to a crime, it is often the only possible recourse for the accused. In this situation, given that J’s mother was facing a powerful school district with a lot of money and attorneys, without any way of predicting the outcome, many parents could have been faced with this horrible choice.
The decision was made and J was no longer facing a felony charge. But the battle was not over. J and his mother had other hurdles to overcome.
On December 8th, 2016, J’s mother brought J to an intake session at Parkway Academy Central. This was the alternative school the Smyrna Board ordered J to go to when he was expelled. J and his mother met with Assistant Principal Wendy Gray at Parkway. One of the first things Gray did was give J a questionnaire. He filled it out. After, Gray told J’s mother J had attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. This was the first J’s mother heard about this. As his e-school report from Smyrna clearly showed, J was NEVER evaluated or tested for any type of disability by the Smyrna School District. But one day with Gray, and he gets a diagnosis. J’s mother made another choice that day: J would NOT go to Parkway Academy Central. It was not that she didn’t want J to receive an education. She very much did. But not at Parkway. This was a school for severely disruptive students. She did not feel J fit into that category and exercised her parental rights to make the best decision for her child.
Because the State Board of Education ruled on Regulation 616 in October, they had to abide by the regulation as it previously stood for any matter prior to the revamping of the regulation. However, due to the changes in the Regulation, it stated any alternative education setting meeting, for the initial meeting, must have a representative from the district which assigned the student to the alternative setting. Williams took advantage of the prior rules in the regulation and had no representative from Smyrna attend the intake meeting at Parkway Academy Central.
The next day, an important hearing took place with Hearing Officer Dr. Thomas Pledgie. Also in attendance were Assistant Superintendent Patrik Williams, J, his mother, two witnesses who accompanied J, Smyrna’s attorney Allyson DiRocco and the State Board’s Deputy Attorney General Valerie Dunkle.
The State Board of Education has very clear direction dictated by Delaware statute in an appeal.
The Hearing Officer’s job is to get the two parties together and hear both sides of the story. After hearing the evidence and testimony from both sides, the Hearing Officer renders their own finding of facts and presents it to the State Board of Education. The State Board then votes on the appeal based on that information. But the key words in Delaware statute are preponderance of evidence, arbitrary or capricious, and contrary. As an example, in the J.W. v. Brandywine appeal of 2015, the State Board found the Brandywine Board of Education did not vote on J.W.’s discipline matter in public session. That was enough to overturn the Brandywine Board of Education’s decision because they actually broke Delaware State Code by doing so.
Smyrna School District submitted a very long report called “A Standard of Review” which went over the entire case from their perspective. They argued that everything they did was correct and they did not violate J’s due process. They urged the State Board of Education to abide by the Smyrna Board of Education’s decision to expel J.
This is the part where this series became very difficult. There is no transcript of the meeting with the Hearing Officer. As per Delaware statute, a transcript can only be provided in a couple of situations. If either party requests a copy of transcript prior to the hearing, they must request one. As well, all of these meetings are recorded. A party has to request a transcription of the recording, at their own expense, within a period of 3 months after the final order from the State Board of Education. I spoke with the State Board of Education office and they did confirm this information.
What I am about to present is the Hearing Officer meeting from the side of J’s mother. I wrote about how Patrik Williams sent me a letter a couple of weeks ago about this series I’ve been writing about. I did advise Mr. Williams in my response that I was very certain the school district would not officially respond at all on this matter since it dealt with a student. Since Mr. Williams did not respond whatsoever to that response, I did not reach out to the district to get their thoughts on the Hearing Officer meeting.
Both sides presented their evidence. Much of the hearing was going over what I’ve already presented during the Smyrna Discipline Hearing from September of 2016. But Dr. Pledgie asked some very particular questions to the Smyrna administration.
He asked the district if P had stopped wearing her hijab because of the April 20th incident in the hallway when she alleged J had called her a terrorist. The district said yes. Dr. Pledgie then played the video showing the hallway incident. In that video, P was not wearing her hijab. The attorney for Smyrna, Allyson DiRocco, admitted they may have had the timeframe wrong on that point.
Pledgie asked the district what made this a hate crime. J’s mother, as well as two other parties she brought to the meeting, all told me the same thing about what happened next. They all quoted the conversation verbatim between Pledgie and Patrik Williams.
Pledgie: What makes this a hate crime? Is it because he said terrorist? If he said tootsie roll would this still be a hate crime?
Williams: Really? Tootsie Roll, Dr. Pledgie? Tootsie Roll?
At this point, Williams picked up a stack of papers and folder he had in front of him and slammed it down on the table. Williams appeared visibly shaken and upset by ALL in attendance at the meeting. According to J’s mother and the two other witnesses, even Deputy Attorney General Valerie Dunkle was taken aback by William’s conduct.
During another point in the meeting, Williams said J’s mother only asked for student statements and not any other statements. When Dr. Pledgie asked who did J hurt with his words, Williams accused Pledgie of retrying the case.
While going over the hallway incident video again, P is seen crossing all the way over a wide hallway to physically walk between J and his friends. She even made physical contact with J. Pledgie asked the district if P looked like a student that was afraid based on her demeanor in the video.
The subject of J stating “Allah Akbar” in the middle of class and then raising his hand in a Nazi salute came up. J’s mother said this was never reported to anyone at the school and the only source for this was the video interview between School Resource Officer Jessica Weller, P, and her mother. I have seen that video. I will reserve comment on that video at the conclusion of this series, but it did come up. J’s mother said the Smyrna School District’s continually stating this false fact was slander.
J, his mother, and the two witnesses all described the same remarks Williams made as they were leaving the hearing. All four of them said Williams said to DiRocco, loud enough for all to hear, “We will continue to fight this.”
Based on what J’s mother told me and the alleged comments Williams made, it appeared as if J would win the State Board appeal. But when Pledgie issued his Recommended Decision and Proposed Order to the State Board of Education, many of the things that happened during the meeting were not included in his report, as seen below.
The State Board of Education would render a decision on the appeal at the January 19th, 2017 board meeting. The last board meeting Secretary of Education Dr. Steven Godowsky would serve at. The best part of the report were the hand-written notes on it.
2016 was a difficult year for J and his family. Since May, J’s mother was doing everything possible to help her son. J began 7th grade at Smyrna Middle School the year before with all the promise and excitement any pre-teen may have. That quickly evaporated following the two incidents which would turn 2016 into a nightmare for him. He wasn’t allowed on Smyrna School District property under threat of arrest. He was expelled. He missed his friends. Even though he saw them outside of school, he didn’t have all the interaction in an education setting. All he wanted was to go back to school, in the district that he was growing up in. As J’s mother told me, following the meeting with the Hearing Officer, she was upset and so was Williams. But she said J acted like a young man, held his head up high, and walked out of the hearing like a gentleman.
Meanwhile, Patrik Williams was digging his heels in. He was adamant about doing everything in his power to keep J out of the Smyrna School District. This would not be the last time Williams became upset during this case. Nor would it be the last time Williams dealt with J and his mother. This is a man who essentially ran the school district and discipline was a major part of his agenda. For someone who couldn’t abide the student code of conduct being violated in any way, he sure didn’t want to follow those same rules of decorum at meetings in front of the student he railroaded out of the district. This man who believed zero tolerance methods were effective become unhinged over the word Tootsie Roll.
To be continued in Part 8 in which 2017 comes with many letters from the district to J’s mother and choices are made that cause other state agencies to get involved and make colossal errors. Oh yeah, and the State Board makes their final determination on the appeal.
In my eyes, this chapter holds some of the most pivotal moments in this saga. J’s mother made the choice to plea bargain and prevent her son from getting a felony on his record. Parkway Academy diagnosed J with ADHD, something Smyrna School District never did, even though part of federal education law under IDEA requires them to do so under child find. Patrik Williams lost it during the State Board hearing. And the Hearing Officer seemingly contradicted himself between valid questions he asked during the hearing and what appeared in his Final Order.
At the heart of this situation is the fact that the hate crime criminal charge against J was dropped before the trial. But the expulsion from the district was based on… a hate crime. Is that not a sort of double jeopardy, being charged with the same crime twice? The Final Order from Pledgie did not go over actual moments from the hearing or even address the very odd behavior of Patrik Williams. It relied on witness statements that were either taken out of context or misrepresented. The Hearing Officer relied on written statements from staff at Smyrna Middle School but they did not appear as witnesses to corroborate their statements. Even the video of the hallway incident, along with Pledgie’s remarks about it, show a disposition toward guilt. In this case, context was important. The Hearing Officer based part of his recommendation about a supposed incident that no one reported at the time, and in my opinion, would have been the most egregious of any of the allegations against J. J clearly testified that incident never happened.
While an argument could be made against the effectiveness of the questionnaire given to determine an ADHD diagnosis during the visit to Parkway, the diagnosis was made. That was a huge moment in this case. If J does have ADHD, it could trigger an Individualized Education Program, known as an IEP. Part of an IEP is what is known as “manifestation determination”. If the disability causes a certain behavior, is the student truly at fault for that behavior? Disabilities are neurologically based. The purpose of special education is to intervene when a student’s disability basically gets in the way of their education. Supports and resources are put into place to help the student succeed. Was J possibly affected by a disability? Lest we forget, at no point did the guidance counselor or even a school psychologist get involved in this case. But the district claimed they used every single possible intervention technique they had in their arsenal. Really?