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Sellars v. Dublin City School District Board of Education

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Tenth District

August 1, 2013

Danielle Sellars, Appellant-Appellee,
v.
Dublin City School District Board of Education, Appellee-Appellant.

APPEAL from the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. (C.P.C. No. 12CV-05-6368)

Johrendt & Holford, and Andrew Mills Holford, for appellee.

Britton, Smith, Peters & Kalail Co., L.PA., Scott C. Peters, and Giselle S. Spencer, for appellant.

DECISION

SADLER, J.

{¶ 1} Appellant, Dublin City School District Board of Education ("the Board"), appeals from the judgment of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas reversing appellant's order that expelled appellee, Danielle Sellars, from school for the remainder of the 2011-2012 school year. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand this matter for further proceedings.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

{¶ 2} During the 2011-2012 school year, appellee attended Davis Middle School as a seventh grade student. On February 7, 2012, Assistant Principal Mark Mousa received a report from the school resource officer, Dublin Police Officer Jeff Hall, about drug activity at the school and the possibility of appellee being involved. Mousa and Officer Hall searched appellee's locker but found nothing. The following day, Mousa was informed that a parent had called the school to report that her daughter received marijuana at school from appellee. The parent did not want the marijuana in her house and, therefore, brought it to Officer Hall. Based on these events, Mousa began questioning the students said to be involved. When Mousa questioned appellee, the school's guidance counselor, Suzanne Hicks, was the only other person present. At the beginning of the meeting, Mousa gave appellee written notice of the school's intention to suspend her for violation of Rules 1 and 26 of the Middle School Handbook ("handbook"), which provide:

RULE 1. Narcotics, alcoholic beverages, drugs, drug paraphernalia, counterfeit controlled substances, or mood altering chemicals of any kind: A student shall not knowingly buy, sell, supply, apply, possess, use, transmit, conceal, be under the influence of the aforementioned items, assist and/or facilitate in the sale of the aforementioned items.
RULE 26. General Misconduct: The General Misconduct shall apply to conduct not specifically set forth herein which substantially and materially disrupts or interferes with the good order, discipline, operation, academic or educational process taking place in the school, or which substantially and materially is or poses a threat to persons or property.

(Handbook, 23, 26.)

{¶ 3} When asked if she knew anything about the marijuana, appellee admitted that at school she received marijuana from a student and then split that amount of marijuana between herself and another student who was to give appellee money for it the following day. Appellee also provided a written statement describing her involvement in the incident. Thereafter, Holly Collins, appellee's mother, was notified of appellee's ten-day suspension from school and her right to appeal the suspension to the Board. The notice to Collins also notified her that appellee would be recommended for expulsion due to the distribution of marijuana while at school. Appellee's suspension was appealed and upheld by the Board's designee. Though being advised of the right to further appeal the suspension to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, no appeal was taken.

{¶ 4} On February 13, 2012, Superintendent David Axner sent Collins notice of the recommended expulsion and notice that a hearing on the issue was scheduled for February 21, 2012. After the hearing, Collins and appellee were notified that appellee was expelled for 55 days, the remainder of the 2011-2012 school year. The decision to expel appellee was appealed to the Board, which issued findings of fact and conclusions of law affirming the expulsion decision. Thereafter, appellee filed an appeal in the trial court pursuant to R.C. Chapter 2506. In the trial court, appellee asserted three errors, namely that appellee's due process rights were violated, that the expulsion decision was not supported by substantial, reliable, and probative evidence, and that the expulsion decision constituted an abuse of discretion.

{¶ 5} With respect to her claim that her due process rights were violated, appellant asserted she was denied her right to have a representative present during her questioning as required by page 31 of the handbook, which provides:

When a student is questioned by school officials or staff members as part of a police investigation, whether relative to his/her conduct or in an attempt to gather information, the student shall have the right to be accompanied by a teacher, counselor, or parent/custodian during the questioning.

{¶ 6} Appellee argued that, during the February 8, 2012 "interrogation, " Mousa was aware that a companion police investigation was occurring contemporaneously; therefore, she was denied due process because she was not informed of her right to be accompanied by one of the persons enumerated in the handbook. The trial court agreed with appellee that her due process rights were violated because she was not afforded her right to be accompanied by a teacher, counselor or parent/custodian. Accordingly, the trial court reversed the decision of the Board expelling appellee without addressing appellee's other arguments.

II. ASSIGNMENT OF ERROR

{¶ 7} This appeal followed, and the Board brings the following assignment of error for our review:

THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DETERMINING THE DUBLIN CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION'S DECISION TO EXPEL PLAINTIFF DANIELLE SELLARS WAS AN UNCONSTITUTIONAL ...


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