PITTSFIELD – Maine Central Institute and SAD 53 have been named in a civil suit filed by the Maine Civil Liberties Union alleging that they violated the rights of a 16-year-old student earlier this year.
Filed last week in federal court in Bangor by the MCLU, the suit represents Pittsfield resident Zach Logiodice and his parents, Peter and Dawn Logiodice, although the actual court documents refer to them as Jane, John and minor Doe because of educational confidentiality requirements.
It alleges that Zach Logiodice’s right to due process was violated when he was suspended from school for 17 days after he used profane language during an argument with a teacher over a soda can. The suit is asking for an unspecified amount of compensation for Logiodice.
State law restricts student suspensions without hearings to 10 days. By not holding a hearing and not allowing the student a chance to be heard, the suit maintains, MCI not only violated Logiodice’s constitutional right, but state and federal law, and the contract the school maintains with SAD 53.
If MCI were a purely private school, the issue would be moot. Private school students generally do not enjoy constitutional rights of free speech or due process. But since the school accepts public tuition funds for students from Pittsfield, Detroit and Burnham, the suit will proceed.
According to the lawsuit, Zach Logiodice’s suspension began on Jan. 19 and he was barred from returning to school until Feb. 13, a total of 17 school days.
When the 10-day limit was passed, Logiodice’s parents appeared before the SAD 53 board of directors and, refusing the board’s offer to go into executive session, discussed their son’s situation openly. Dawn Logiodice told the board that she was not asking the directors to override MCI’s decision, but she wanted them to be aware of the violation of law.
She outlined the details of the suspension, saying that her son’s behavior was inappropriate and embarrassing to admit. She said her son had admitted swearing at a teacher and an administrator when they took his soda away just before he was to take a midterm examination.
But they said that MCI’s dean of students, John Marquis, suspended their son for 10 days after he determined the boy was a danger and threat to others. The incident was determined to be a safety issue in the wake of heightened awareness after a year of school violence across the country.
Only in a letter they received three days later did the Logiodices learn that Marquis had added a new condition to their son’s suspension. He said that the student had to obtain counseling and a “safety evaluation.” The suit maintains that Logiodice had never been suspended or expelled from MCI before this incident. He had a lead role in the school play and was a member of the school’s wrestling team.
Because of the complicated process of dealing with private insurance carriers, the student was not able to obtain a counseling appointment until Feb. 7, well past the state law requirement for return by Feb. 2.
At the Feb. 7 school board meeting, after hearing the Logiodices’ story, Superintendent Terrence McCannell admitted to the board members that the student’s due process had been violated. McCannell had written a letter to MCI on Feb. 3, informing them of the violation.
Also at that board meeting, MCI’s head of school, Douglas Cummings, said that normal school policy is that if action is necessary beyond a 10-day suspension, a disciplinary hearing is scheduled and a decision is made to expel the student or not. “I have opted not to call such a hearing in this case,” Cummings told the directors.
After the school board meeting, according to the suit, Cummings informed the Logiodices that their son could come back to school after he had met a second time with a counselor, and the counselor met with school officials. That meeting finally took place on Feb. 11 and Zach Logiodice was allowed to return to school of Feb. 13.
On Monday morning, McCannell said he could not discuss specifics of the lawsuit, only saying “I stand firm the statute is clear.”
He said that the issue of suspension hearings and their process has repeatedly been discussed during joint meetings between the school board and the MCI board of trustees. “Basically, they violated our contract and the issue has come up because we are negotiating a new contract,” McCannell said, adding, “We have not resolved that issue.”
Cummings also said that he could not comment regarding litigation in process.