Parents of a Yarmouth High School lacrosse player are challenging the constitutionality of the school’s extracurricular honor code.

They sued the town’s school district in federal court in Portland this week, after their daughter was given a three-week suspension from the team for holding a beer can in a photo on a social networking Web site.

The family’s attorney claims that the school’s actions and honor code did not allow for due process and violated the girl’s civil rights.

“This code thing is the government reaching into our homes,” said Michael J. Waxman, an attorney who has his own practice in Portland. “I don’t think citizens understand how it’s being used. It allows the school to monitor and discipline 24-7, with the only exception being summer break. I think this is a problem. A constitutional problem.”

The girl’s family declined to comment for this story.

Yarmouth High’s extracurricular honor code is a four-page document that students must sign to participate in sports or other activities. Students pledge they won’t use alcohol or tobacco, haze, or take part in anything that might embarrass the school during the school year — on or off school property, in or out of their activity’s season.

According to the lawsuit, the 16-year-old girl was called out of her math class last week to go to the office of Assistant Principal Amy Bongard. Once there, she was shown the photograph of her holding a silver can, and was told that school officials knew she had violated the code.

In an affidavit, the girl said: “I felt scared and intimidated by the situation and by Ms. Bongard. I did not believe that I had the right to just get up and leave. I started to cry and asked Ms. Bongard if I could call my mom. She told me that I was not allowed to call my mother until after I had spoken with her, and also spoken with Yarmouth High School’s substance abuse counselor Jill Frame.”

The girl, who is not being identified by The Portland Press Herald because she is a minor, said she was questioned for 20 minutes and felt forced into confessing, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit names Bongard, Frame, Principal Ted Hall, Superintendent Judy Paolucci and the Yarmouth School District as defendants.

The district has been ordered to file a response by noon Saturday. A hearing is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to address an emergency injunction on the suspension to let the girl play lacrosse while the matter plays out in court.

The discipline calls for her to miss three weeks of lacrosse, including two games and a team trip during April vacation.

“Students who are sanctioned are never happy,” said David Ray, chairman of the Yarmouth School Committee. “To go from a decision by the principal to filing a federal lawsuit is unprecedented, in my experience. The general proposition that an honor code in and of itself is unconstitutional, there is absolutely no basis in the law for this claim (Waxman) is creating. He’s trying to create new law.”

Waxman, who has written about his objections to such honor codes in opinion pieces in a local weekly newspaper, said he has known the plaintiff since she was 5.

“She’s a great kid,” Waxman said. “As a community, we need to ask ourselves whether we are willing to endorse the schools interrogating our children, without parents present, and forcing confessions about such things as whether the student held a beer can in her hand at a party over the weekend. Are we truly willing to sacrifice our children’s rights of privacy and constitutional guarantees of fairness and due process?”

Ray said the school’s requirement for students to sign the honor code is intended to hammer home its importance. It is required of anyone who wants to take part in an extracurricular activity — from sports to chess club to theater.

Its first sentence reads: “The expectations that follow have been designed to reinforce Yarmouth’s Core Values which are: Honesty, Integrity, Trustworthiness, Loyalty, Fairness, Caring, Respect, Citizenship, Pursuit of Quality, Responsibility, and Positive Self-Esteem.”

“It’s a significant act on their part to sit down with us and review the promises they’re making,” Ray said. “We do the signature thing, not for a legal reason, but for the importance of understanding the significance of what you’re committing to.”

Ray said that, by law and in fairness to the student, he cannot respond to the specifics of the lawsuit.

“We are confident that when the responsive pleadings are filed and when this matter is concluded, the facts that will be proven will differ greatly” from the lawsuit’s claims, Ray said.

The courts can be reluctant to interfere with school policies, said Cabanne Howard, an assistant professor at the University of Maine School of Law.

“Students’ constitutional rights don’t end at the schoolhouse door,” Howard said, “but the courts have been willing to allow the schools to limit students’ constitutional rights in certain contexts. For example, to search for drugs.”

Rick Perla of Yarmouth, who has put three daughters through the school system, said he is among a group of parents who believe the code is too far-reaching.

“My general feeling for the honor code is that it is really quite ridiculous,” Perla said. “I do think it’s an invasion into people’s homes. Enforcing rules in people’s homes and how they choose to raise their children. I do wonder about the constitutionality of it.”

Waxman said his client deserved due process.

“This lawsuit could be the first step toward giving the kids due process,” he said. “To me, when a cop can’t interview her without her parents and force a confession, but the school can, there’s something wrong with our system.”

 

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

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