Appellate Court Upholds Right of School District to Seek and Receive Juvenile Offense Information
Client AlertWritten by: Jeffrey L. Shanaberger, Esq.
In a case of first impression, Jeffrey L. Shanaberger, Esq. persuaded both the Law Division and Appellate Division to recognize the right of a school district to make and rely upon a standing request of local law enforcement to disclose juvenile arrest information and to use that information in order to maintain safety, order and discipline in the school in which the juvenile student is enrolled.
In J.N. v. West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional Sch. Dist., the claimant was a former high school student who sued both the school district and municipality asserting that his rights under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act were violated when confidential arrest information was provided by the police to his high school principal. Plaintiff was in a car pulled over by police when he was a high school junior and was charged in a juvenile delinquency complaint with possession of drug paraphernalia. The police department, in accordance with the Uniform Memorandum of Agreement between Law Enforcement and Education, to which both the school district and municipality were parties, informed high school principal of the charges. The principal in turn advised the varsity baseball coach of the arrest as the claimant was a student athlete who had signed a student code of conduct providing for a mandatory period of suspension from competition if found to be in possession of tobacco, alcohol or controlled dangerous substances. The charges were later dismissed after plaintiff performed community service. Years later, however, plaintiff contended defendants violated his civil rights by improperly disseminating his juvenile records.
The school district and municipality moved to dismiss the case. The trial court found no violation noting that there was a statutory exception to the otherwise confidential nature of the records. Specifically, the trial court found that under N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-60(c)(3), law enforcement was permitted to release information regarding charges incurred by a juvenile to the principal of the school attended by the juvenile. The court found plaintiff disregarded this exception to disclosure articulated under N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-60(c)(3) and the District's MOA which specifically authorized and required police to provide information to the principal. The claimant contended that the MOA could not rise above the language of the statute itself and asserted that the school district had to make a specific request for juvenile offense information and could not, as the MOA provided, rely upon a standing, documented request for all such information. This argument was rejected by the trial judge. Plaintiff appealed.
The Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the judgment of the trial court and the dismissal of all claims against both the school district and municipality. The appellate court further declined to address plaintiff's equal protection claim since it was not properly before the court, having been advanced for the first time on appeal. This case reaffirms a school district’s right to receive important but sensitive information from local law enforcement and to use it in its discretion to maintain safety, order and discipline in its schools. Had the courts recognized a superior right to confidentiality, school districts would have run the risk of monetary liability whenever they were provided with arrest information by local law enforcement, whether they requested or expected the information or not. The Appellate Division recognized that the exchange of such information between law enforcement and the schools represents an important tool to combat substance abuse among students and should not be interfered with by the courts.
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