ACLU Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Maine High School Student Expelled for Taking Pain Reliever

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
February 1, 2001 12:00 am

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PORTLAND, ME – In yet another case of zero tolerance school policy gone awry, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine filed a lawsuit today on behalf of ninth-grader Tracy Jannicelli, who was denied her right to due process when she was expelled by school officials for violating her school’s zero tolerance drug policy, which bans possession or use of Tylenol.

“Once again, a zero tolerance policy has stripped school administrators of their own ability to use good judgment,” said Richard L. O’Meara, Legal Director of the ACLU of Maine. “Not only did school administrators, in Tracy’s case, fail to notify her of campus policy, she was subjected to the misinterpretation of that policy by the very people who are supposed to be enforcing it.”

O’Meara said that the school district’s expulsion of the student for violation of its local “zero tolerance” policy plainly violates Maine’s state law governing school expulsions and the student’s due process rights. Contrary to the school board’s actions, he said, Maine law does not provide officials with the authority to expel students for possession or use of over-the-counter pain relievers while on school premises.

Jannicelli’s expulsion from Lake Region High School in Naples arose from an incident last December 12, 2000, when she experienced a severe headache while at school. She asked several classmates if they had any Tylenol or aspirin she could take. One student gave her two white pills, which were represented as – and which she believed to be – Tylenol or aspirin.

When Jannicelli was questioned later that day about the medication by her school’s Assistant Principal, Guy Stickney, she responded that she thought the pills were Tylenol. Upon hearing her explanation, Mr. Stickney wrote out a “statement” in long hand and asked Jannicelli to sign it. Although she was unable to read the statement, she signed it out of fear of Mr. Stickney.

At noon that day Jannicelli was dismissed from school. Mr. Stickney called her at home that afternoon to tell her that she was suspended for five days for “breaking school policy.”

The school policy prohibits students from possessing or using any drug while on premises, including over-the-counter pain relievers. However, due to her late registration, Jannicelli missed the school’s orientation program given to new students to educate them about school policy.

Jannicelli’s mother Barbara Söderström, called Stickney to notify him that neither she nor her daughter were made aware of the policy, and to request a copy of the school policy of which her daughter supposedly broke. Stickney never sent a copy of the requested materials to the student or her mother, although he did send them a letter confirming her five-day suspension.

Later that week, Jannicelli and her mother received a letter from school superintendent Candace Brown notifying them that Jannicelli’s suspension would be extended to 10 days and the school board would consider whether she should be expelled indefinitely for her admitted “use of a substance in violation of school board policy.”

The applicable Maine statute provides school boards with authority to expel students in substance possession cases only when the student intentionally or knowingly possesses an illegal drug. Neither the Superintendent nor any other school official ever explained to Ms. Söderström or Jannicelli that Maine law governing expulsion requires proof of an intentional or knowing possession of a illegal drug – a category that does not include “over-the-counter” pain relievers.

At the school board hearing on January 8, Jannicelli and her mother were again denied access to the “statement” written by Stickney and signed by the student. After hearing statements from both Stickney and Jannicelli – with Stickney recommending Jannicelli’s expulsion – she was expelled.

In addition to asking the court to annul Maine School Administrative District 61’s expulsion of Jannicelli, the ACLU of Maine also asks that the court force the school district to remove from her educational file any record of the illegal expulsion, and to award Jannicelli and her mother reasonable damages and costs.

This case, Barbara Söderström vs. MSAD No. 61 and Candace Brown, was originally filed in Maine Superior Court and is now pending in Federal Court.

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