Mum takes school to court over pot

JO MOIR
Last updated 05:00 19/05/2014

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A student caught smoking dope during school hours, but not on school grounds, has wound up in the High Court after his mother challenged the school's decision to expel him.

The Palmerston North Boys' High School student, then 16, was suspended and subsequently expelled by the board of trustees' disciplinary committee last December.

That prompted his mother to seek a judicial review of the decision.

The court case comes on the back of school principals saying parents are increasingly calling in lawyers over suspension matters, turning disciplinary hearings into "mini High Court trials".

School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr said the threat of legal action was leaving boards feeling vulnerable and frustrated about how to deal with disciplinary matters.

"There's a high level of frustration from boards in terms of no-one expects trustees to be legal experts, but there are about 123 Parliament acts that could impact on boards. There is a lot of expertise needed to deal with that.

"You can't prepare boards of trustees for the world falling in . . . but that's why we do our darnedest to support them."

In the High Court at Wellington on Wednesday, lawyer Toby Manktelow, representing the boy, who is now 17, described him a "good boy who's done a stupid thing".

The student, who remains at the school pending the outcome of the review, was walking down a pedestrian accessway about a kilometre from the school when he was caught smoking drugs with a bong.

School rector David Bovey discussed the incident with the student, suspended him, and said he would need to appear before the disciplinary committee.

During the process, the student admitted smoking marijuana a couple of times previously, but Manktelow said it was not while he was under the school's authority.

Manktelow argued that comments made by Bovey about his "hands being tied" suggested the suspension outcome was pre-determined, and the board had used unlawful processes and "inflexible policy".

Lawyers John Reardon and John Upton, QC, for the school and board, said the school had acted in good faith and natural justice had been upheld.

Reardon said the school - which has a roll of about 1750 - had clear boundaries and some fundamental rules that students knew were not to be broken, which included drugs use.

John Paul College principal Patrick Walsh, who is working with the Ministry of Education on guidelines for principals dealing with misbehaviour outside school grounds, said it was not the first time Palmerston North Boys' High had faced legal action over disciplinary matters.

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Boards of trustees were often lay people and it was "a big ask to expect them to know all the legal framework". "Increasingly lawyers are the first port of call for parents - before the principal sometimes - and that is the culture we're dealing with. Parents want someone to be responsible and to pay."

Scots College headmaster Graeme Yule said schools had clear expectations and, if students were breaking the rules, they should not be crying foul. "They should be taking personal responsibility."

Having lawyers involved in school matters was not always a bad thing, but many schools could not afford to get legal advice.

"My worry is that schools will choose to do nothing and not take a stand because of the costs involved. If that happens it will be society that is worse off."

Justice Alan MacKenzie has reserved his decision.

- The Dominion Post

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