Disorderly Conduct at School – Should you have a hearing? Guest Blogger Howard Lintz

Disorderly conduct at a school is governed by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-288.4(a)(6)). A juvenile may be adjudicated delinquent of the offense if he “substantially interfere[s] with the operation of the school.” In re Pineault (2002). The analysis in case law is exceptionally fact-sensitive, and the analysis uses vague language and varying factors, ultimately allowing room for unpredictable outcomes. For these reasons, juvenile-defense attorneys may want to consider adjudicatory hearings in such cases. Below are two potential areas of focus:

Compliance with School Resource Officers (SROs)

In some case law, the court considered the juveniles’ failure to comply with SROs. See, e.g., In the Matter of T.S.B., (unpublished) (three separate disruptions over a two hour period, causing one teacher to leave her class unattended for several minutes, and not complying with the SRO, constituted a “substantial interference with the operation of the school.”). One could argue that dealing with disruptive or disciplinary matters is a component of an SRO’s job. For that reason, behavior requiring more than the officer’s minimal involvement may not substantially interfere with school operations. The argument may be made that rather than preventing the officer from doing her job, dealing with students behaviors are a requirement of the job. This may be distinguished from disobeying administrators, given the differences in duties. Principals and assistant principals supervise personnel, interact with superintendents and the community, coordinate, and manage school resources. Time spent dealing with student misbehavior is time taken from doing entirely different work. This may be relevant evidence to provide the court to help it determine whether your client’s behavior substantially interfered with school operations.

Length of Disruption

Analysis of a disorderly-conduct case often depends how much time school staff spends dealing with the juvenile’s behavior. Courts have frequently invoked language including “several minutes.” See, e.g., In the Matter of M.G. (2003) (because the physical education teacher was away from his assigned duties “for at least several minutes,” the juvenile’s conduct “substantially interfered with the operation of the school.”) and In the Matter of Q.P.W. (unpublished) (loud swearing in a hallway, causing two principals to respond to the incident, may constitute substantial interference with the operation of a school).

Specifically, a disruption may last several minutes or “not … more than several minutes,” In re Brown (2002). Where the court describes the disruption as lasting “several minutes” or “at least several minutes,” the juvenile is typically adjudicated delinquent. See, e.g., In re Pineault (2002). Where the court describes the disruption as lasting “not … more than several minutes,” the juvenile typically is not adjudicated delinquent. See, e.g., In re Eller (1992).

The inherent vagueness of “several minutes” could become a significant litigation issue. First, the case law does not define the phrase clearly. Second, even if the phrase itself were given a clear definition, any period of several minutes could still be described in both ways at the same time (i.e., both as “several minutes” and as “not … more than several minutes”). Because these cases do not provide definitive clarification of these issues, defense counsel may want to consider adjudicatory hearings in disorderly-conduct cases.

You may access all of the disorderly-conduct cases by accessing our case law compendium on our website by clicking “Case Law” on the Materials for Defenders page (under the Information for Defenders tab, above).

We would again like to extend our thanks to Howard Lintz, Pro Bono Legal Associate, for this analysis and his work in reformatting and organizing both the individual cases, and the Case Law Compendium itself. His insight and attention to the most minute of details has been invaluable.

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