A lawsuit charging Petrolia Consolidated ISD Superintendent Derrith Welch and Principal Gary Waitman with the violation of a student’s civil rights is far from over despite a Sept. 8 ruling by a federal judge, said Rick Bunch, attorney for the child.
The suit stems from a May incident in which the student, identified as P.M. in court documents because he is a minor, refused to shake the superintendent’s hand during the school’s eighth grade promotion ceremony. When Welch reached out and attempted to force the student to shake, the boy pulled away. P.M. received 10 days in-school suspension for the action, to begin on the first day of the new school year.
According statements submitted during an injunction hearing in the 97th district court, P.M. refused to shake Welch’s hand as a protest to what he perceived as harassment against him and his sister throughout the school year.
In a letter to PCISD and later submitted to the 97th District Court, Tiffany Macklin, listed in court documents as “next friend of P.M.’” charges Welch with not allowing P.M.’s sister to participate in certain extracurricular activities and at one point trying to “dictate a ballgame.”
Bunch believes the suspension is retaliation by the superintendent and principal for P.M.’s actions.
On Aug. 22, a restraining order was placed on PCISD by the 97th District Court, followed by a Sept. 2 hearing held in Archer City in which the case was moved to U.S. District Court.
In his Sept. 8 decision, Judge Robert K. Roach, magistrate for the Wichita Falls Division of the Northern District of Texas of the U.S. District Court, said the student’s refusal to shake the superintendent’s hand does not warrant civil rights protection.
“There’s no case law on the right to shake a governmental officials hand,” said Bunch. “But, it appears that it was certainly a conduct that was meant to deliver a message to somebody.”
The decision lifted the restraining order, explained Bunch, which had already been violated when PCISD began P.M.’s suspension on the first day of school. Bunch said P.M. is entitled to a trial.
“Even though the magistrate didn’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” said Bunch of the perceived civil rights violation.
The judge stated in writing that there are “certain social obligations” to show respect to authority figures, but found no legal obligation for the student to shake someone’s hand. He also stated that it is not the duty of the court to intervene in disciplinary decisions made by the school.
Though he found in favor of the school, Roach noted his belief that the school overreacted in its disciplinary measures.
“I find that the school has wholly failed to demonstrate that it had any reasonable apprehension that this incident caused or would cause any insurrection, wholesale disobedience, wholesale ‘dissing’ of teachers, principals or persons in authority,” said Roach. “It was only made that way by the reaction of the school district through its principal.”
Superintendent Welch did not respond to a request for interview.
In a letter dated June 27, Waitman notified P.M. of the punishment for “purposefully not offering his right hand for a hand shake to the Petrolia CISD superintendent and blatantly jerking his hand away when he recieved his certificate as he walked across the stage.”
In 97th District Court documents, Macklin stated that the suspension would have unfavorable consequences for P.M., who was valedictorian of his eighth grade class. She noted that he is an “A” student and eighth grade class president, and would miss honors classes, be labeled a “troublemaker,” miss class officer elections, miss athletic workouts and the first football games of the season and jeopardize college scholarships or admittance into the military. Macklin stated that in-school suspension at PCISD is not staffed by a certified teacher and fails to cover all areas of instruction.