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School to Pay $50K After Whiskey-Fueled Blunder

(CN) - A student was wrongfully expelled from school after a classmate put a bottle of whiskey in his backpack, a Louisiana appeals court found. The school board must pay the student $50,000 in damages because administrators had deliberately misconstrued or concealed evidence to punish him.

In October 2003, Justin Christy opened his backpack during first-period class at Captain Shreve High School, and a bottle of Kentucky Deluxe whiskey fell out and broke on the floor. Christy, who was 17 years old at the time, protested that he had no idea how it got there, but he was arrested.

One hour later, his friend, Andrew Heacock, admitted to school officials that he had placed the bottle in Christy's backpack, without Christy's knowledge. Heacock, who was president of the student council, said he had found the bottle his car and placed it into Christy's backpack, expecting Christy to find it and throw it away.

Administrators disregarded Heacock's mea culpa, and even mischaracterized the statement. The assistant principal to whom Heacock confessed told the principal that Heacock only admitted to placing the whisky bottle on the seat of Justin's truck, rather than inside the backpack.

Heacock prepared a written statement when school officials also refused to let him testify at Christy's expulsion hearing, but Christy was expelled from school for two months. The Caddo Parish School Board (CPSB) also recommended that Christy finish his studies at another high school.

Christy sued the school board and principal through his mother, Melanie, for due process violations and for imposing an "excessive and irrational punishment."

The trial court ruled in the Christy family's favor and awarded them $50,000. The court found that school officials were grossly negligent and intentionally did not tell the full truth during Christy's hearing.

The Shreveport-based Second Circuit Louisiana Court of Appeal upheld the ruling, citing an expert opinion that the investigation should have ended when Heacock admitted to placing the bottle in Christy's backpack.

"We find no manifest error in the trial court's ruling that plaintiff met his burden of proving that the CPSB and its officials breached their duty to conduct an investigation into the matter and to exercise its discretion in implementing a punishment," Judge Felicia Toney Williams wrote for the court. "The breach of that duty resulted in Justin being wrongfully expelled from school during his senior year of high school."

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