Home / Fulltext Opinions / Supreme Court of Virginia / WOOD v. HENRY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

WOOD v. HENRY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS


WOOD v. HENRY COUNTY
PUBLIC SCHOOLS


January 9, 1998
Record No. 970727

BRIAN E. WOOD, BY AND THROUGH
HIS NEXT FRIENDS, LARRY E. WOOD
AND LAVONNE W. WOOD

v.

HENRY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

OPINION BY JUSTICE LEROY R. HASSELL, SR.
FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF HENRY COUNTY

David V. Williams, Judge
Present: Carrico, C.J., Compton, Hassell, Keenan, Koontz, and
Kinser, JJ., and Poff, Senior Justice


I.

The primary issue we consider in this appeal is whether a
public school division, which expelled a student who violated the
school division’s code of student conduct, violated that
student’s due process rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth
Amendment to the United States Constitution.[1]

II.

In March 1996, Brian Edmond Wood, then a 10th-grade student at
Bassett High School in Henry County, went on a school-sponsored
field trip with his class to the Henry County Jail. In response
to a sheriff deputy’s inquiry whether any students had weapons in
their possession, Brian gave the deputy a pocketknife. The deputy
gave the pocketknife to a school chaperon, and when Brian
returned to school, the chaperon took him to the assistant
principal’s office. Curtis Shelton, an assistant principal, asked
Brian "what happened" and told him to "write a
brief statement on a sheet of paper." Brian gave a written
statement that he did not intend to take the pocketknife to
school, that he placed the knife in his pants pocket the night
before the field trip, and that he forgot that the knife was in
his pants pocket until the deputy asked if any students had any
weapons.

After hearing Brian’s version of the incident, Shelton
suspended Brian from school for 10 days for violating the Henry
County Public School Code of Student Conduct which prohibits
students from possessing knives at school-sponsored events.
Shelton contacted Brian’s mother, by telephone, and informed her
of the incident and the suspension.

On March 4, 1996, Robert C. Vogler, director of pupil
personnel for the Henry County Public Schools, sent a notice to
Brian’s parents, Larry E. and LaVonne W. Wood, informing them
that the Bassett High School administration had recommended that
Brian appear before the committee for the control of school
discipline "to determine if there [was] sufficient cause to
recommend to the Superintendent that Brian be excluded from
attending Henry County Public Schools." The notice advised
Brian’s parents of a hearing date and location and cited the
appropriate policies in the code of student conduct.

Brian, his parents, and their attorney appeared at a hearing
before the committee and presented evidence to the committee. The
Woods’ attorney participated in this hearing.

The committee decided to recommend to the Henry County Public
School Board that Brian be expelled from school. Brian remained
on suspension pending official action by the School Board. The
committee informed Brian and his parents of its decision and
advised them that they had a right to appeal the committee’s
recommendation to J. David Martin, Superintendent of the Henry
County Public Schools.

Brian appealed the recommendation of expulsion to the
superintendent. During that appeal, Brian was asked to discuss
the events surrounding his possession of the pocketknife, and his
parents were asked if they had anything they would like to say.
Brian’s parents, as well as his attorney, made statements to the
superintendent. By letter dated March 22, 1996, the
superintendent informed the Woods that "[i]t appeared from
the affidavits and testimony that the incident of possession of a
weapon on a field trip from Bassett High School did constitute
sufficient cause for action beyond the disciplinary options used
by the school. It is accordingly decided that the recommendation
of an expulsion be made to the full [S]chool [B]oard and that
Brian remain suspended from the Henry County Public Schools
pending official action by the [S]chool [B]oard." The
superintendent also informed the Woods that Brian had a right to
a hearing before the School Board and that they could be
represented by an attorney. The superintendent also notified the
Woods of the date, time, and location of the hearing.

The School Board conducted an evidentiary hearing to consider
the superintendent’s recommendation. The superintendent presented
evidence, and the Woods’ attorney cross-examined him. Mr. Wood
testified at the hearing, and the Woods’ lawyer argued on behalf
of Brian. The School Board considered the evidence and argument
of the Woods’ attorney, and found that Brian had violated the
school division’s policy which prohibits students from possessing
knives at school-sponsored events as well as Code ?? 22.1-277.01,
18.2-308, and -308.1 which prohibit students from possessing
firearms or weapons on school property. The School Board, among
other things, voted to expel Brian.[2]

III.

Brian, by and through his next friends, Larry and LaVonne
Wood, filed a petition pursuant to Code ? 22.1-87[3] against
the Henry County Public Schools. Brian alleged that the Henry
County Public Schools had violated his Fourteenth Amendment right
to due process when he was suspended and subsequently expelled
from the Henry County Public Schools. The school division filed
an answer denying that it had violated Brian’s due process
rights. The trial court considered evidence, legal memoranda, and
argument of counsel and, on August 5, 1996, entered a judgment
which set aside Brian’s expulsion because the School Board had
erroneously decided that a pocketknife was a firearm within the
intendment of Code ?? 22.1-277.01,
18.2-308(A), and -308.1. The trial court did not disturb the
School Board’s finding that Brian had violated the Code of
Student Conduct which prohibits students from bringing knives to
school-sponsored events.

The court remanded the proceeding to the School Board for
reconsideration of punishment. The School Board convened to
reconsider Brian’s punishment without notice to Brian or his
parents and decided that it would not change Brian’s punishment.
The trial court entered a final judgment, Brian appeals, and the
school division assigns cross-error.

IV.
A.

Brian argues that the school division deprived him of his due
process rights on numerous occasions.[4] First,
Brian contends that he was deprived of his due process rights
when the assistant principal initially suspended him. Next, Brian
claims that his due process rights were violated because, he
says, he was not given sufficient notice of the hearing before
the disciplinary committee. Brian also asserts that his appeal
from the decision of the disciplinary committee to the
superintendent of schools did not comport with due process. We
find no merit in these contentions.

The Commonwealth has conferred upon school boards, which are
created pursuant to art. VIII, ? 7,
of the Constitution of Virginia, broad authority to prescribe and
enforce standards of conduct in schools. This authority, however,
must be exercised consistently with constitutional safeguards.

The United States Supreme Court articulated the principles
that we must apply in this appeal in Goss v. Lopez,
419 U.S. 565, 574 (1974). There, the Court stated that a

"State is constrained to recognize a student’s
legitimate entitlement to a public education as a property
interest which is protected by the Due Process Clause and
which may not be taken away for misconduct without adherence
to the minimum procedures required by that Clause."

Thus, a student charged with misconduct may not be suspended
from a public school without the minimum procedures required by
the due process clause. Explaining the requirements of due
process, the Supreme Court noted:

"’The fundamental requisite of due process of law is
the opportunity to be heard,’ Grannis v. Ordean,
234 U.S. 385, 394 (1914), a right that ‘has little reality or
worth unless one is informed that the matter is pending and
can choose for himself whether to . . . contest.’
. . . At the very minimum, therefore, students
facing suspension and the consequent interference with a
protected property interest must be given some kind of
notice and afforded some kind of hearing. ‘Parties
whose rights are to be affected are entitled to be heard; and
in order that they may enjoy that right they must first be
notified.’" Id. at 579 (citation omitted).

The Supreme Court also held in Goss that

"[s]tudents facing temporary suspension have
interests qualifying for protection of the Due Process
Clause, and due process requires, in connection with a
suspension of 10 days or less, that the student be given oral
or written notice of the charges against him and, if he
denies them, an explanation of the evidence the authorities
have and an opportunity to present his side of the story. The
Clause requires at least these rudimentary precautions
against unfair or mistaken findings of misconduct and
arbitrary exclusion from school." Id. at 581.

Applying these principles, we hold that the Henry County
Public School division did not abridge Brian’s due process
rights. The assistant principal, who initially suspended Brian,
gave him an opportunity to explain his version of the facts, and
Brian was informed of "what he is accused of doing and
. . . the basis of the accusation." Id. at
582.

The committee for the control of school discipline also
afforded Brian due process. That committee forwarded a notice to
Brian’s parents that he committed a "severe breach of the
conduct code at Bassett High School" and referred to a
policy which states that a student shall not possess, handle, or
transmit a knife while at school or during an off-site
school-sponsored activity. Without question, Brian, his parents,
and their attorney knew the reasons Brian had been suspended and
that the committee was conducting a hearing to determine whether
Brian should be expelled. Additionally, as we have already
mentioned, Brian, his parents, and their attorney participated
during the hearing before the committee.

The superintendent did not abridge Brian’s due process rights.
The Woods requested an appeal to the superintendent "due to
a weapons violation." The Woods were informed of the date
and time for this appeal, and Brian, his parents, and their
attorney were given an opportunity to make whatever statements
they deemed appropriate.

B.

Brian argues that even if the school division accorded him his
procedural due process rights, the school division should not be
permitted to promulgate policies that require suspension or
expulsion of students who possess knives on school property. We
find no merit in this contention. Neither the school division’s
policies nor the Federal Gun-Free School Act with which Code ? 22.1-277.01(A)
complies, divests the School Board of its authority to impose a
punishment less severe than expulsion. Moreover, a school
division is permitted to suspend or expel a student for
possession of a dangerous weapon on school property or at
school-sponsored events provided that the school division does
not abridge a student’s constitutional or statutory rights. See
Mitchell v. Board of Trustees of Oxford, 625 F.2d
660, 664-65 (5th Cir. 1980); Kolesnick v. Omaha Pub.
Sch. Dist.
, 558 N.W.2d 807, 813 (Neb. 1997). In this
instance, Brian fails to identify any statutory or constitutional
right that the Henry County Public School division has
purportedly violated.

C.

As we have already stated, the trial court set aside the
School Board’s initial decision to expel Brian and remanded the
proceeding, by an order dated August 5, 1996, to the School Board
because the School Board erroneously concluded that Brian’s knife
was a firearm under Code ?? 22.1-277.01,
18.2-308.1, and -308(A). Brian argues that the school division
violated his due process rights because, upon remand, the School
Board failed to give him notice and an opportunity to be present
at the hearing.

After the trial court remanded this proceeding, the School
Board decided it would expel Brian, and the trial court entered a
final judgment which dismissed the proceeding. Brian’s counsel
objected to this final judgment "for the reason stated on
the order dated August 5, 1996," which was the order that
remanded the matter to the School Board. Brian’s objections to
the August 5, 1996 order did not, and could not, contain an
objection on the basis that he was not given adequate notice of
the School Board’s hearing on remand because the date of that
hearing had not yet been fixed. Brian did not make any objection
in the record to the School Board’s failure to give him notice of
the second hearing. Accordingly, this argument is procedurally
barred. Rule 5:25.[5]

V.

As previously noted, the School Board concluded at Brian’s
first hearing that he had violated, among other things, Code ? 22.1-277.01, which
prohibits a student from possessing a firearm on school property.
The trial court held that the School Board misapplied Code ? 22.1-277.01, and the
school division assigns cross-error to this determination.
Essentially, the school division asserts that a
"pocketknife" is a "firearm" within the
meaning of Code ?? 22.1-277.01,
18.2-308, and -308.1. We disagree.

Code ? 22.1-277.01(A)
states in part:

"In compliance with the federal Improving America’s
Schools Act of 1994 (Part F — "Gun-Free Schools Act of
1994"), a school board shall expel from school attendance
for a period of not less than one year any student whom such
school board has determined, . . . to have brought a
firearm onto school property or to a school-sponsored activity as
prohibited by ? 18.2-308.1
. . . ."

Code ? 18.2-308.1
states in part:

"If any person has in his possession any
. . . weapon . . . designated in
subsection A of ? 18.2-308
upon (i) the property of any public . . .
elementary, middle or high school, including buildings and
grounds, (ii) that portion of any property open to the public
used for school-sponsored functions or extracurricular
activities while such functions or activities are taking
place, or (iii) any school bus owned or operated by any such
school, he shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor."

Code ? 18.2-308(A)
defines the word "weapon" to include, inter alia,
"any dirk, bowie knife, switchblade knife, ballistic knife
. . . or . . . any weapon of like kind."

Contrary to the school division’s assertion, the pocketknife
that Brian had in his possession does not constitute a firearm
within the meaning of these statutes. We stated in Martin
v. Commonwealth, 224 Va. 298, 301-02, 295 S.E.2d 890,
892-93 (1982): "Under the rule of ejusdem generis,
when a particular class of persons or things is enumerated in a
statute and general words follow, the general words are to be
restricted in their meaning to a sense analogous to the less
general, particular words. East Coast Freight Lines v. City
of Richmond
, 194 Va. 517, 525, 74 S.E.2d 283, 288 (1953); Rockingham
Bureau
v. Harrisonburg, 171 Va. 339, 344, 198 S.E.
908, 911 (1938). Likewise, according to the maxim noscitur
a sociis (associated words) when general and
specific words are grouped, the general words are limited by the
specific and will be construed to embrace only objects similar in
nature to those things identified by the specific words. Commonwealth
v. United Airlines, 219 Va. 374, 389, 248 S.E.2d 124,
132-33 (1978); Hensley v. City of Norfolk, 216 Va.
369, 374, n.5, 218 S.E.2d 735, 740, n.5 (1975)."

Applying these principles, we hold that Brian’s pocketknife is
not a firearm because a pocketknife is neither a dirk, bowie
knife, switchblade knife, ballistic knife, nor a weapon of like
kind.[6]

Accordingly, we will affirm the judgment of the trial court.

Affirmed.

 

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] The Fourteenth Amendment to the
United States Constitution states in relevant part that no state
shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property,
without due process of law."

[2] The School Board’s decision
states: "[T]he Board accept[ed] the recommendation of the
Superintendent that the student be expelled for 365 days provided
that the student may return for the [19]96-[19]97 school year if
he remains of good behavior and provided further that, number
one; the student be provided homebound instruction for the
remainder of this school year and number two; that if the student
is of good behavior and does not violate the Code of Student
[C]onduct for the remainder of the 365 day period, that this
action of the [School] Board and the original suspension be
expunged from the student’s record, and number three; that if the
student violates the Code of Student Conduct during the 365 day
period, he will be expelled for the remainder of the original 365
day period."

[3] Code ? 22.1-87 states:
"Any parent, custodian, or legal guardian of a pupil
attending the public schools in a school division who is
aggrieved by an action of the school board may, within thirty
days after such action, petition the circuit court having
jurisdiction in the school division to review the action of the
school board. Such review shall proceed upon the petition, the
minutes of the meeting at which the school board’s action was
taken, the orders, if any, of the school board, an attested copy
of the transcript, if any, of any hearing before the school
board, and any other evidence found relevant to the issues on
appeal by the court. The action of the school board shall be
sustained unless the school board exceeded its authority, acted
arbitrarily or capriciously, or abused its discretion."

[4] Code ?? 22.1-277 and
22.1-277.01 confer certain statutory rights upon a student
subject to expulsion or suspension by a school board. Brian does
not contend, however, that the school division contravened his
statutory rights.

[5] Brian raises the following
arguments that we do not consider because he failed to raise them
in the trial court, Rule 5:25: Brian was denied due process
because Shelton was a member of the committee for the control of
school discipline; the School Board was required to provide Brian
a more expeditious review of his suspension and subsequent
expulsion; Brian was excluded from the educational process
because he did not receive any homebound instruction until after
the School Board’s hearing, more than 30 days after his initial
hearing; and the trial court lacked the authority to remand this
case to the School Board.

[6] A
"dirk" is defined as "a long straight-bladed
dagger formerly carried [especially] by the Scottish
Highlanders[,] 2. a short sword formerly worn by British junior
naval officers." Webster’s Third New International
Dictionary
, 642 (1981). A "bowie knife" is defined
as "a large hunting knife adapted [especially] for
knife-fighting and common in western frontier regions and having
a guarded handle and a strong single-edge blade typically 10 to
15 inches long with its back straight for most of its length and
then curving concavely and sometimes in a sharpened edge to the
point." Id. at 262. A "switchblade knife"
is defined as "a pocketknife having the blade
spring-operated so that pressure on a release catch causes it to
fly open." Id. at 2314. A "ballistic knife"
is defined as "any knife with a detachable blade that is
propelled by a spring-operated mechanism." Code ? 18.2-308(N).

Scroll To Top