Steamboat Springs School Board denies expulsion appeal

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— The Steamboat Springs School Board last week upheld the decision to expel a 17-year-old girl suspected of possessing marijuana with the intent to sell.

The School Board met March 24 in executive session to consider an appeal related to a Jan. 29 incident that resulted in Superintendent Brad Meeks’ decision to expel the student. The incident launched an ongoing legal battle between the student and the district.

Meeks said Thursday that the Steamboat Springs School District could not discuss the case.

The district hired legal counsel to help it through the expulsion process. According to a public records request, the district has accrued $8,736.66 in legal costs associated with the case. The district has yet to be billed by the Boulder law firm Caplan and Earnest for representation at a 12-hour suspension hearing held March 4. The district also has not yet paid the hearing officer, former Moffat County Court Judge Mary Lynn James. Meeks said James charged a rate of $150 per hour.

Steamboat Springs attorneys Grant Bursek and Clark Davidson represented the student. Bursek said they took on the case for 1/50th of what they typically would charge because they believed in the girl and wanted to fight for her. In exchange, the student did volunteer work for the Steamboat Springs Arts Council.

“Someone needs to stand up for this kid,” Davidson said.

Bursek and Davidson thought the girl was not treated fairly.

“I don’t think the School Board is representing the true interests of the people here,” Davidson said.

Bursek and Davidson said the student, whose name is being withheld because she is a juvenile, has a 3.8 GPA and had not been in trouble at school before. They said the student had been identified as an at-risk youth by school officials. She comes from a broken home and currently lives with her aunt and uncle in Hayden.

Bursek and Davidson said Jan. 29 that their client was questioned by the high school’s campus supervisor, Dennis Hensen. They said Hensen questioned the student for 30 to 40 minutes because he thought she had been smoking marijuana across the street during lunch.

Bursek and Davidson said Hensen performed impairment tests on the student and determined she was not high, but the school then wanted to search a car that did not belong to the student. According to the school district policy, the school can interview students without the prior consent of parents or guardians, and cars can be searched if they have “reasonable grounds to suspect that the search will yield evidence of any illegal, unauthorized, unsafe or contraband materials.”

Inside the car, a total of 6 grams of marijuana in six baggies were found inside a box. After the marijuana was found, the student wanted a lawyer. Police were called, but the Routt County District Attorney’s Office did not file charges.

Bursek and Davidson said that during the expulsion hearing, four staff members testified that they had no reason to think the student was selling marijuana. The student contended the marijuana was packaged individually because that was the way she obtained it. She said she brought the marijuana with her to school because her aunt had been searching her room.

Going into the expulsion hearing, Davidson said he told his client they were going to lose.

“You’re basically going to the school administration and saying, ‘They’re rotten and they’re wrong,' and they’re just going to slap you down,” Davidson said.

According to Bursek and Davidson as well as the expulsion appeal decision obtained through a records request, the judge determined the student violated school district policy against possession of marijuana on school property.

“The conduct was serious, evidenced intent to sell, and raised the case to a level of discipline beyond suspension,” the determination documents states.

James did not recommend the student be expelled but rather that she be suspended until the day before graduation.

Meeks did not adopt James’ recommendation and chose to expel the student. Meeks said it was the first time the School Board had heard an expulsion appeal while he has been superintendent. He took the job in July 2011.

Bursek and Davidson contend the student was not selling marijuana, and she should have been suspended for five days, which they said is standard punishment for a student caught with marijuana. Meeks, who spoke generally about the school’s policies, said there is no set punishment outlined in the policies.

“It’s one of those things that you have to look at case by case,” Meeks said.

Bursek and Davidson said the student had several reasons for fighting the expulsion.

“She was concerned if she was expelled, it would greatly decrease her chances of getting into CU or Dartmouth,” Davidson said.

The attorneys said they will continue to fight for the student with goal of getting her back in school.

“School is really what she has,” Davidson said.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Grant Bursek's name.

Comments

Becky Plummer 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Why wasn't she charged with a criminal offense? The school has the authority to do what they see fit , doesn't a zero tolerance policy cover possesion of drugs also?

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Benjie Robinson 5 months, 2 weeks ago

I'm glad that the DA opted to not file criminal charges. Sure this girl used very poor judgment, that's what happens when you're 17. It seems like she's a good student with definite and achievable goals. Having a criminal charge on her record could seriously hinder her future. I also appreciate the fact that she had a couple lawyers step up and help her through this situation.

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