Butler v. Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education, No. 02-2199 (10th Cir. Aug. 25, 2003)

Thursday, August 28, 2003
Amicus Briefs

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has ruled that a school district did not violate a student’s right to substantive due process by suspending him when he should have known that he brought a weapon onto school grounds. Stephen Butler, a student at Rio Rancho Public Schools (N.M.), was suspended after school officials discovered weapons and drug paraphernalia in his brother’s car, which he had driven to school that day. Stephen claimed not to have known of his brother’s contraband and challenged his suspension in court. He argued that punishing him for an unknowing infraction bears no rational relationship to school safety and thus violated his right to substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court agreed, and the school district appealed. The Tenth Circuit declined to rule whether a student’s interest in a public education triggers substantive due process guarantees. It also declined to rule whether suspending a student for “unknowingly” possessing a weapon violates due process, avoiding a potential split with Sixth Circuit, which had so held in Seal v. Morgan, 229 F.3d 567 (6th Cir. 2000). Rather, the court held simply that suspending a student because he should have known of the weapon was rational, was not arbitrary, and did not “shock the conscience.” Although the hearing officer initially found only that Stephen possessed the contraband in violation of school policy, the school board expressly found that Stephen “should have known” that he possessed the weapon that that he “knew, or should have known” that he was responsible for the vehicle’s contents. The court also noted that analogies to constitutional requirements in criminal cases were not helpful or persuasive in this student discipline case.

Butler v. Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education, No. 02-2199 (10th Cir. Aug. 25, 2003)
Full opinion: Click here

[Editor’s Note: NSBA and five state school boards associations in the Tenth Circuit submitted an amici curiea brief urging the Tenth Circuit to respect school board discretion to hold students accountable for knowing what they bring onto campus and to avoid blurring the distinction between constitutional requirements applicable in the criminal context and those in the student discipline context. See below.]

NSBA amici curiea brief

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