Judge orders new hearing for Dallas student

June 18th, 2015 10:32 pm

First Posted: 2/10/2014

WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Vough on Monday denied a motion by the family of a Dallas High School student accused of computer misuse who were seeking an injunction against a 10-day suspension.

But the judge also ordered the school to hold a new informal discipline hearing — at which the teen must be present, Vough said — adding that the student must be permitted to attend school until the hearing can be held.

The 15-year-old and his parents have been identified only by their initials in legal documents and in court.

“We’re happy to be moving forward,” the teen’s mother said after Monday’s proceedings.

District officials say the boy “intentionally created multiple files and folders,” composed of small Word documents repeatedly duplicated, that would have crashed the district’s main Internet server if technology director Bill Gartrell had not intervened.

The sophomore and his parents were fighting the suspension on the grounds that due process was not followed in handing down the penalty, citing concerns about the language used by a school official to describe the allegations, as well as the way in which an informal hearing about the suspension was handled.

In particular, the parents maintained their son was not permitted on school grounds due to suspension, thus could not attend the original Jan. 27 hearing; and, they say district officials never made Gartrell available for questioning, nor did high school Principal Jeffrey Shaffer provide them with all evidence about the allegations before increasing the teen’s punishment from three to 10 days away from school.

The student initially was suspended for three days, starting Jan. 24, and then for 10 days after the Jan. 27 informal hearing. County Judge David W. Lupas overruled the district on Jan. 30, sending the teen back to school under a preliminary injunction while the court case was pending. Arguments before Vough began one week later.

Vough on Monday instructed that any language referring to “cyber hacking” or computer viruses be removed from the student’s official record. One of the family’s key contentions was that the use of those words by Shaffer was not an accurate reflection of what their son is accused of doing. Testimony over three afternoons before Vough repeatedly made it clear that Gartrell never used those phrases, instead describing a duplication of Word files.

The judge’s decision, however, also indicated he did not believe the family and their attorneys had met the legal burden of proving their case, adding he did not believe the student had suffered any irreparable harm as a result of the school’s actions.

“We’re very pleased,” school district attorney Robert N. Gawlas Jr. said Monday. “It has been the position of the school district since the beginning that the district provided the student all the due process that was due to be given him.”

Gawlas also said district officials offered the family a new informal hearing last Monday, but that was rejected by the plaintiffs. During the court hearing, family attorney George Michak accused the district of offering a new hearing — with amended charges that did not refer to any “cyber” offenses — as simply trying to remedy their earlier mistakes through a “second bite at the due process apple.”

Vough also stressed another point before concluding his reading of the law is that neither side is entitled to legal representation during an informal hearing, and he does not want lawyers present when the school and the family sit down together again, likely next week.