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Student showing propensity for violence can be required to undergo psychiatric evaluation

Jack Ryan

Demers v. Leominster School Dept., 263 F.Supp. 2d 195 (Dist. MA 2003).

Michael Demers and his parents filed a federal lawsuit against school officials after he was suspended from school following his refusal to undergo a psychiatric exam. The suit alleged among other things, a violation of Michael’s due process rights.

School officials sought to have Michael psychiatrically examined after he drew a picture depicting the school surrounded by explosives with students hanging out of the windows crying for help. On the back was a picture of the school superintendent with a gun to his head and explosives at his feet. The day after drawing the picture Michael wrote on a paper the phrases: “I want to die” and “I hate life” several times.

A meeting was held with Michael and his father. School officials agreed to let him stay in school with the condition that he behave properly, do his work and undergo the psychiatric exam. He was suspended when he refused to attend the exam.

In determining whether Michael’s drawings were “threats” and unprotected by the First Amendment, the court noted that courts are split in their analysis. Some circuits view the conduct from how it would be perceived by the listener or person threatened, while others view the conduct from the perspective of the actor. The court here, viewed the drawing from Michael’s perspective and concluded that he should have known the drawing constituted a threat. As such, it was not protected speech.

The court went on to conclude that the meeting between school officials, Michael and his father was sufficient process to protect Michael’s due process rights. The court held that Michael had an opportunity to be heard and to explain himself. Such an opportunity was sufficient to satisfy the requirements of procedural due process under the circumstances of this case. The court made special note of the fact that school officials were allowing Michael to remain in school while awaiting the psychiatric exam and only took action on the suspension after Michael failed to attend the session as previously agreed.

The court found it unnecessary to reach a privacy claim that was made, concluding that such a claim would only be considered in cases where school officials had released the results of the examination.

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