BAR HARBOR — An expulsion hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday, April 11, for a Mount Desert Island High School student who, in February, posted a threatening message in a classmate’s name in a private social media group chat.
The high school board will decide whether the student, a senior, will be allowed to finish the school year.
The fake message that the student posted included a photo of a classmate and said the classmate planned to come to the school and shoot people, according to the parents of the student who posted the message.
The message was posted Feb. 16, two days after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. Local police and school officials determined that the posting was done as a prank. But the student, whose name was not released because he is a minor, was summonsed on juvenile charges of criminal threatening and terrorizing.
He was suspended from school, according to his parents. School system policy permits principals to suspend “disobedient and disorderly” students for up to 10 days. Longer suspensions may be imposed by the school board.
The parents of the student who posted the threatening message initiated an online petition asking school officials to drop expulsion proceedings against their son. They wrote that he posted the message with “an intention of making fun of the [Florida] school shooting and one of his classmates at the same time.” They described his action as one of “extreme insensitivity, carelessness and poor judgment.”
But they said expulsion would be much too harsh a punishment.
As of Wednesday, more than a thousand people had signed the petition.
School officials are prohibited by policy and law from discussing disciplinary matters involving individual students. The relevant federal law is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
State law details the circumstances under which students “shall” be expelled: “Following a proper investigation of a student’s behavior and due process proceedings … if found necessary for the peace and usefulness of the school, a school board shall expel any student who is deliberately disobedient or disorderly; for infractions of violence; who possesses on school property a firearm … or [other] dangerous weapon; who, with the use of any other dangerous weapon … intentionally or knowingly causes injury or accompanies use of a weapon with a threat to cause injury; or who possesses, furnishes or traffics in any scheduled drug.”
Neither state law nor Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) policies say anything about reasons a school board “may” expel a student.
“The question of ‘may’ is difficult because that’s not in the statute,” said attorney Michael Buescher of Drummond Woodsum, the Portland-based firm that provides legal counsel for most of the school districts in Maine.
He said a school board acts as a “neutral fact finder” in expulsion proceedings.
“The board is usually asked two questions: Did the act occur? And is expulsion necessary?” Buescher said. “The statute makes it clear that it’s the school board’s obligation to expel if it’s necessary for the peace and usefulness of the school.”
While emphasizing that he cannot comment on a specific case or individual student, MDIRSS Superintendent Marc Gousse said it is common for schools involved in expulsion proceedings to consult legal counsel “to make sure you’re in compliance with policies and statutes.”
According to state law, expulsion hearings and school board deliberations are held in closed session. Following that, in open session, a member of the board may move to expel a student. If the motion is seconded and passed, the student will be banned from school.
However, the school board may vote to expel a student for either a specific period or an unspecified length of time. In the latter case, the superintendent is authorized to provide the expelled student with a reentry plan.
An MDIRSS policy states that a student may be readmitted “on satisfactory evidence that the behavior that was the cause of the student being expelled will not likely recur.”