July 18, 2011 – A circuit court cannot order a public school district to provide alternative educational services to a student who has been expelled, the Wisconsin Supreme Court recently concluded by a 4-3 majority.
After a 15-year old Madison East High School student was expelled for bringing marijuana to school in 2009, the Dane County Circuit Court adjudged the student delinquent and ordered the Madison Metropolitan School District (District) to provide him with alternative educational services during his expulsion period, up to three semesters.
The District argued that it had statutory authority to define the terms of a student’s expulsion, and “the fact that an expelled student also has been adjudicated delinquent does not change a school district’s authority to expel a student without educational programming.”
On appeal, the District IV Wisconsin Court of Appeals vacated the circuit court order, ruling the circuit court acted outside its authority. In Madison Metropolitan School District v. Circuit Court for Dane County, 2011 WI 72 (July 14, 2011), the supreme court majority affirmed the appeals court.
Conflict of statutory schemes
Wisconsin statutes give school districts the express authority to expel students. But the Juvenile Justice Code, Wis. Stat. ch. 938 gives circuit courts certain authority to provide for care and treatment with respect to juveniles adjudged delinquent.
The supreme court, in an opinion by Justice David Prosser, noted that “[t]his case exposes the tension between a school district and a circuit court when a juvenile has been expelled from school for delinquent conduct but has not been committed by the juvenile court to an institution or program that is required by statute to provide educational services.”
The majority concluded that while school districts may be encouraged to provide alternative education to expelled students, certain provisions of the Juvenile Justice Code do not override the District’s explicit authority to expel students and refuse further educational services.
Under Wis. Stat. section 938.34(7d), a court must facilitate a care and treatment plan for delinquent juveniles, which may include attendance of educational programs.
Like the appeals court, the supreme court majority ruled that a circuit court’s power to order attendance at existing educational programs is not the same as the power to order that school districts create educational programs for expelled students to attend.
“We are unable to interpret § 938.34(7d) as broadly as the circuit court suggests because it would empower the court to order school districts to create programs or enter into contracts,” Justice David Prosser wrote.
The circuit court had also ruled that refusing to provide educational services to an expelled student would impair the court’s obligation to prevent a “person” from contributing to the delinquency of a minor under section 938.45 of the Juvenile Justice Code.
Section 938.45 gives circuit courts discretion to make orders with respect to the conduct of a “person” in his or her relationship to a juvenile deemed delinquent. In the circuit court’s view, this gave it authority to order that the District provide minimal educational services.
However, the supreme court majority ruled that “a school district is not capable of contributing to the delinquency of a minor under the plain language of [section 938.45] because a school district is not a natural person.”
Justice N. Patrick Crooks wrote a 21-page dissent (joined by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley), arguing that a school district’s power to expel students “does not relieve it of its obligation to provide educational services, if a circuit court orders the school district to do so for a juvenile it has adjudged delinquent.”
“I would adhere to the Wisconsin Legislature’s clearly expressed intent in enacting the [1996 Juvenile Justice Code] to provide circuit courts with the necessary authority to fashion appropriate and effective dispositions for juveniles adjudged delinquent,” Justice Crooks wrote.
Bruce Meredith, Madison, represented the Dane County Circuit Court. Matthew William Bell, associate general counsel, represented the Madison Metropolitan School District.