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A Delaware school district changed its search and seizure policy in response to a parent’s lawsuit.

In 2015, Brandywine High School junior Joe Wahl suffered from an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. Mixed up with another student, the boy was told to hand over his backpack for inspection.

When administrators dug through the bag, apparently without reason, they found a small credit card knife. Referring to the district’s zero-tolerance policy for weapons, Wahl was sent home and suspended. The involuntary absence, as reported by WDEL, caused the junior to miss out on a marketing competition as well as a swim championship meet.

About a year after his run-in with Brandywine High School’s suspicious administrators, Joe Wahl’s father, Pat, decided to file a lawsuit.

The elder Wahl decried Joe’s suspension as the result of “an unconstitutional fishing expedition.”

Hands holding a credit card knife.
Wahl holds the ‘credit card knife’ he’d been suspended for possessing following what his father claims was an unconstitutional search. Image courtesy of Amy Cherry, WDEL.

WDEL says the lawsuit was settled on January 30th of 2016; its conditions weren’t made public.

“I’m confident students will benefit immediately,” said Pat Wahl in a statement.

Benefiting, they are.

Soon after the settlement, Brandywine School District began revising several of its policies relating to student discipline and the ability of teachers and other administrators to conduct unwarranted searches.

Among the first change was extending an appeals process Joe Wahl had never realized existed.

In the past, students were allowed a brief 24-hour window to appeal a suspension or other major disciplinary decision. The district has since lengthened the appeals window to three days.

Amy Cherry of WDEL writes in an early May article that “Brandywine School District Superintendent Dr. Mark Holodick said they’ve implemented a number of changes that both outline and clarify students’ rights, and streamline protocols for a search as well as the grievance, or appeals, process.”

Holodick says students now have the chance to ask questions about why they’re being searched. Unlike in days past, students suspected of concealing wrongdoing within their backpacks or other personal property are now entitled to answers.

The district will also hold off on conducting any searches until a parent or guardian has been contacted and informed about the situation.

“Students don’t need to follow every request, turning down certain requests will not result in punishment,” said Wahl. “No parent will ever have to lay awake, as we did, worried about what’s going to happen to their child.”

Wahl went on to say that one of his objectives in filing the lawsuit was to ensure that searches of students’ property wouldn’t be conducted without a parent present, should an adult guardian object.

Superintendent Holodick also said he’s aiming to make the grievance procedure less formal and more plainly spelled out, so that even an e-mail could be considered grounds to instigate an appeal.

Promising communications between parents, students, and teachers would be improved, Holodick shouldered at least partial responsibility for the dilemma.

“I think the next time that we have to address a similar situation that we’ll handle it in such a way that we don’t end up with a family that’s incredibly disappointed and a legal matter… that instead, though we may not agree, we’ll end up with a family that appreciates the way in which the situation was handled,” the superintendent said.

Sources

Brandywine School District faces civil rights suit

EXCLUSIVE | Brandywine School District changes policy after alleged unconstitutional search of student results in lawsuit

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