Mar 27th, 2024

Is There a New Definition of Violent Behavior?

On the heels of implementing Workplace Violence Prevention policies, the Commissioner recently issued a decision which addresses what constitutes “violent” behavior in a school setting. In this decision, the Commissioner determined that two students pushing one another and subsequently pushing a teacher did not justify a lengthy suspension because the record of the student discipline hearing did not include evidence demonstrating that the students conduct could reasonably be characterized as violent.

More specifically, in the matter of Appeal of P.M. and Appeal of K.K., two eleventh grade students were pushing one another in the hallway. When a teacher intervened and asked both students to stop pushing each other, one of the two students pushed the teacher causing her to take a few steps backwards. During the disciplinary hearing, the students testified that they were friends, had a good relationship with the teacher, and that no harm was caused by their actions. The students did acknowledge during the hearing that it was never acceptable to touch a teacher, even in a joking manner.

As part of the hearing, the school district did not present any witnesses or evidence in response to the students’ testimony that they were merely engaging in friendly horseplay. Additionally, the teacher did not testify or submit an affidavit regarding the incident.

Ultimately, the Commissioner found that the student who pushed the teacher engaged in “innocent, if not ill-advised jocularity that did not warrant a long-term suspension”. As such, the Commissioner found that the long-term suspension imposed by the school district was shocking to the conscience.

In support of the suspension, the school district took the position that physical violence by a student is never acceptable and warranted a long-term suspension. The Commissioner noted that the school district’s rationale presupposed the students’ conduct could be characterized as violent. The Commissioner found that there is no support in the record to characterize the student pushing the teacher as engaging in violent conduct. In support of this conclusion, the Commissioner contrasted the appeal before her with the facts found in three other appeals involving teachers being pushed by students. In each of the other three cases referenced in the decision where violent conduct was found, the teachers who had been pushed suffered some type of injury.

There are two potential takeaways from this recent decision. It is critical to have firsthand testimony of school district witnesses at student discipline hearings. Additionally, although the Commissioner did not determine the push to be a violent act, if the teacher reported it as part of your Workplace Violence Prevention program, it should still be documented and investigated.


Katherine Gavett

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