Supreme Court vindicates ‘model student’ expelled for a knife in school

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The Minnesota Supreme Court declared today that school districts can’t expel a student for violating a no-weapons policy if the student didn’t willfully violate the policy.

The court ruled in the case of Alyssa Drescher, described as a model student in Wells, Minn., who was expelled for six weeks in 2014 after authorities found a three-inch pocketknife in a purse in her locker.

The commissioner of education upheld the suspension under Minnesota’s Pupil Fair Dismissal Act, which says students can be suspended or expelled for a “willful violation” of a reasonable school policy or for “willful conduct that endangers” the student or others. (See original NewsCut post on the case).

During the search for drugs in April 2014, the school was locked down, students were required to remain in their classrooms, and a drug-sniffing dog searched their lockers. No drugs were found in Drescher’s locker, but the knife was found by a school liaison officer.

She told the principal she used the pocketknife to cut twine on hay bales at her boyfriend’s family farm. She had visited the farm during the previous weekend, and while she typically removes the pocketknife from her purse and places it on a table before leaving her home, on that occasion she had forgotten to do so, according to today’s opinion. She said she forgot the knife was in her purse until the lockdown was announced.

The principal told the girl that he believed her, but citing the weapon’s policy, expelled her for the remainder of the school year. The Minnesota Court of Appeals later overturned the decision, but the school district didn’t back down, appealing the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

It argued that under the law, a “willful violation” can include “careless” or “reckless” disregard of school policy. It also claimed that even if the girl didn’t know of the school policy, she could still be expelled under the law.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea rejected the assertion.

In the alternative, the District argues that, even if we hold, as we do above, that “willful violation” requires actual knowledge and an intentional choice to violate the policy, the evidence is still sufficient to sustain the dismissal.

The record does not leave room for such a conclusion. The Board’s findings of fact demonstrate that A.D. willfully placed the pocketknife in her purse over the weekend and willfully brought that purse to school the next week.

But the provision at issue in the Act does not allow for the punishment of a student who engages in willful acts without intending to violate the policy. In other words, willful conduct is not the same thing as a willful violation. The Act makes this clear by listing the “willful violation” ground for dismissal and the willful conduct grounds in separate provisions.

Because the District had a policy prohibiting the possession of a pocketknife on school grounds, the school had a right, under that policy, to punish A.D. for her inadvertent possession of the pocketknife.

Under the Act, however, the District had no authority to dismiss A.D. without showing that she intentionally violated the policy. Because there is no evidence in the record that A.D. intentionally violated the District’s weapons policy when she forgot to remove the pocketknife from the purse she brought to school on the day in question, the District’s expulsion decision was not supported by substantial evidence.

Gildea and the court also rejected the school district’s argument that the knife endangered other students.

“The school liaison officer conceded that there was no evidence that A.D. told anyone of the pocketknife’s presence, displayed the pocketknife, or removed the pocketknife from her purse at any time,” she wrote. “There likewise is no evidence in the record that anyone even knew the knife was there or talked about it before the officer secured it.”

“The record is simply devoid of evidence that suggests endangerment results from the mere presence of a forgotten 3-inch pocketknife,” she concluded.

During her expulsion, Drescher missed her junior prom.

She graduated from high school last year and now attends Minnesota State University Mankato.