Texas Judge Backs School District That Suspended Boy for Refusing Handshake

A kid who was suspended 10 days from high school is super awesome, according to a federal lawsuit filed by his parents. "He is currently taking honors classes and a higher level math class than most of his peers," says a suit filed by his mother, Tiffany Macklin. The boy, identified in court documents only as P.M., was valedictorian of his eighth-grade class in the Petrolia Consolidated Independent School District, a rural district about 140 miles northwest of Dallas. The suspension, his parents warn, could be disastrous.

"P.M. will likely be labeled a 'troublemaker,'" the suit says. "P.M. is going into high school with new teachers that do not necessarily know he has never been in trouble before."

In those 10 days of suspension, P.M. will also miss the opportunity to vote on class officers, even though he used to be a class president, and he will also have to miss the first two football games, which his mother alleges is "not only punishing him but is also punishing the team." That's how good he is at football.

But while that all sounds like standard, my-kid-can-do-no-wrong parent talk, the circumstances that lead to P.M.'s suspension are unusual. Last year, in middle school, P.M. didn't get along with the superintendent of his school, a man named Derrith Welch. The lawsuit doesn't specify the problem, other than vaguely accusing Welch of harassing P.M. (A Petrolia ISD secretary said that federal law prevents Welch or others employed by the district from commenting).

So during his eighth-grade graduation ceremony last May, P.M. made the bold move not to shake Welch's hand on the stage as he was getting his diploma, instead only offering his hand to the principal. Welch, however, reached out and grabbed P.M.'s hand anyway, the suit says. P.M. pulled away from his grasp.

"It was classic," Tiffany Macklin posted on her Facebook page afterward. "Welch tried to force a handshake and [P.M.] yanked his hand away. Welch turned about 4 shades of red."

The next month, the Macklin family got a letter in the mail from the junior high/high school principal saying that P.M. would be suspended for the first 10 days of his freshman year, which began at the end of August. His offense? "...purposefully not offering his right hand for a hand shake to the Petrolia CISD Superintendent, Mr. Welch, and blatantly jerking his hand away from Mr. Welch when he (P. M.) Received his certificate as he walked across the stage."

In emails back and forth with the school principal last month, Tiffany Macklin argued that a 10-day suspension is extreme, and, in true Texas fashion, suggested that the school just give P.M. "swats" instead. "Other kids have," she wrote of getting swats. "Many times." She's not exaggerating. Petrolia CISD's 2014-2015 Student Code of Conduct says that corporal punishment for all students is a given unless parents sign a form saying they won't allow it.

But Petrolia ISD wanted to stick with the suspension, so the Macklin family sued in federal court last month. Robert K. Roach, the magistrate judge for the Wichita Falls Division of the Northern District of Texas, just sided with the school.

Roach agreed that the Petrolia CISD overreacted, and that P.M. had every right not to shake the superintendent's hand. The federal judge also attempted to make use of some cool kid slang: "I find that the school district has wholly failed to demonstrate that it had any reasonable apprehension that this incident caused or would cause .. .wholesale 'dissing' of teachers, principals and persons in authority."

In the end, however, Roach ruled that if P.M. wants to break the school's silly rules, he should be willing to do it and embrace whatever happens afterward. "This is plain and simple disobedience counseled by P.M.'s mother for which one should expect and be willing to accept punishment and discipline," Roach wrote.

In other words: Kid, if you want to cause trouble with the people who run your school, then do it and own that "troublemaker" label.

Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.