The opinion of the court was delivered by: TROUTMAN
Following their suspensions from high school, plaintiffs David White, Peter White and Eric Rappaport instituted this action against the Salisbury Township School District, the Salisbury Township Board of Education and various school officials and school board members.
The complaint alleges that the defendants, acting under the color of state authority, denied plaintiffs their constitutional rights by imposing suspensions on them without affording them due process of law.
It further alleges that the defendants violated state regulations which control the procedures to be followed in suspending students from public schools. In addition to seeking monetary damages for both the federal civil rights claim and the pendent state claim, plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that the student handbook of the Salisbury High School fails to comport with the requirements of the United States Constitution.
Defendants have moved for summary judgment. Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a trial court may enter summary judgment "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law". Hollinger v. Wagner Mining Equipment Company, 667 F.2d 402, 405 (3d Cir. 1981). In resolving a motion for summary judgment, all inferences to be drawn from the evidence in the record must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Hollinger, supra at 405; Goodman v. Mead Johnson & Co., 534 F.2d 566, 573 (3d Cir. 1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1038, 50 L. Ed. 2d 748, 97 S. Ct. 732 (1977).
The relevant facts are not seriously disputed. On the morning of Friday, February 1, 1980, officers of the Salisbury Township Police Department conducted a surprise raid at the Salisbury High School for the purpose of confiscating drugs and drug paraphernalia. The target of the police action was a group of students who gathered outside the high school gymnasium doors each morning prior to the start of classes. It was believed, based upon the results of a surveillance operation conducted by the local police, that the students would gather for the purpose of using drugs. Consequently, twenty-one students, including the plaintiffs, were arrested, taken inside the gymnasium and searched. Although the police found an undisclosed amount of marijuana and various articles of drug paraphernalia on a number of the students, no contraband was found on the plaintiffs. After the search, the students involved were directed to the Principal's office to sign an attendance sheet. Thereafter, they reported to their regularly scheduled classes. No disciplinary action was taken by school authorities on that date.
By the afternoon of February 1, 1980, the parents of the student-plaintiffs had been told of the arrests and searches which had taken place at the high school. Plaintiff Julian Rappaport contacted the police department in an effort to obtain more complete information with respect to the arrest of his son, Eric.
He also contacted and retained counsel for Eric. Plaintiff James White likewise contacted the local police to discover what evidence they had against his sons, David and Peter. He went to the police station and saw photographs which purported to show David and Peter in the group of students smoking marijuana. He was also told by the police officers involved in the surveillance operation that, with the use of a high-powered lens, they observed his sons smoking.
On Monday, February 4, 1980, the Salisbury Township Police provided defendants Mario Donnangelo, Principal of Salisbury High School, and Ann Buschi, Assistant Principal, with a copy of the official police report on the arrests. After reviewing the report, defendant Buschi spoke with each of the students involved in the incident. These informal discussions took place throughout the course of the school day on February 4, 1980. Among those students with whom she spoke were plaintiffs Peter White and Eric Rappaport. They were told to complete their regularly scheduled classes for Monday, but not to report to classes on Tuesday morning, February 5, 1980. Instead, each student-plaintiff and his parents were asked to attend a suspension hearing being held on Tuesday morning as a result of information provided school officials in the police report. Oral notification of the hearing was ultimately given to all plaintiffs.
In the evening of Monday, February 4, 1980, James White spoke with Julian Rappaport about the hearings scheduled for the following morning. During the course of that conversation, Rappaport told White that he had retained counsel for his son, Eric, and that he was meeting with counsel early Tuesday morning. Plaintiff White decided to retain the same attorney to represent his sons, David and Peter, at their hearings. Consequently, all of the plaintiffs met on Tuesday morning at the office of counsel. During the course of that meeting, plaintiffs' counsel contacted the defendant Donnangelo to tell him that she would be representing the student-plaintiffs at the hearings. In light of this information, the defendants likewise sought to have their attorney present. Because the defendants' attorney was unavailable Tuesday morning, it was agreed that the hearings would be held Wednesday morning, February 6, 1980.
Subsequent to the suspension hearings, plaintiffs' counsel sought and was successful in obtaining an injunction from the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County against the issuance of the suspensions. Thereafter, the state action was voluntarily dismissed and this action was filed.
In Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 581, 42 L. Ed. 2d 725, 95 S. Ct. 729 (1975), the Supreme Court held that a student has a property interest in his right to public education which
qualifies for protection of the Due Process Clause, and due process requires, in connection with a suspension of 10 days or less, that the student be given oral or written notice of the charges against him and, if he denies them, an explanation of the evidence the authorities have and an opportunity to present his side of the story. [emphasis added].
The Court added that "there need be no delay between the time 'notice' is given and the time of the hearing". Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. at 582. It was recognized that, in most cases, the disciplinarian is likely to have an informal discussion with the student regarding the alleged misconduct only minutes after it has occurred. Id. Such discussions are sufficient to meet due process requirements provided the student is first told what he is accused of doing and the basis for the accusation and then given an opportunity to explain his version of the facts. Id. However, "since the hearing may occur almost immediately following the misconduct, it follows that as a general rule notice and hearing should precede removal of the student from school". Id. (emphasis added).
In the matter at bar, the plaintiffs were orally notified of the charges against them and of the suspension hearings being held in connection with those charges. As such, the school authorities complied with the notice requirements of Goss. However, there is a dispute as to whether the suspensions were imposed prior to or subsequent to the hearings. Defendants contend that the suspensions were not formally imposed until after the hearings held on Wednesday, February 6, 1980. In resolving this dispute, we are mindful of our duty to view all evidentiary inferences in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs. The evidence shows that on Monday, February 4, 1980, the student-plaintiffs were told by defendant Buschi to complete their regularly scheduled classes for that day but not to report to classes the following morning. Instead, they were asked to report directly to their suspension hearings. It is clear that the discussions between defendant Buschi and the student-plaintiffs cannot meet the informal hearing requirements of Goss. The facts show that the discussions were used merely as a means of giving notice to the students of the charges against them and of the time and place of the hearings. Defendant Buschi refused to discuss the specifics of the matter with the students at that time and to provide them with an opportunity to give their version of the story. Despite this refusal, the students were directed not to attend classes beginning Tuesday morning. Moreover, when the hearings were postponed until Wednesday morning, the students were not told to disregard their previous instructions and ...