Jake Schneiker intends to defend his son's right to self-defense, even if it means suing the Glendale Union High School District.
Greg Schneiker, a 16-year-old junior at Greenway High, was suspended from school for five days in February for engaging in "mutual combat" with another student, who also was suspended for five days.
But unlike his adversary, Schneiker has yet to honor his suspension. He and his father, Jake Schneiker, appealed the decision to district administration, claiming Greg acted solely out of self-defense and therefore should not be punished. Their appeal was rejected during a hearing held earlier this month.
Last week, the district's governing board rejected the appeal again, and Jake Schneiker says he's prepared to sue. He believes he has no other choice.
"It's like the school denying him the right to breathe," he says.
For the most part, none of the parties involved--from administrators to witnesses to the suspended boys themselves--dispute the facts that led to the fight. But they interpret them differently.
Earlier this semester, during a sixth-period chemistry class, Greg Schneiker and another student were working on a laboratory project involving candles. The two were standing back to back, and Greg noticed that the other boy's flannel shirt was brushing against his bench. Twice, Greg pretended he was lighting the shirt on fire. The other boy became agitated and, Greg recalls, turned around and said, "Watch it or I'll kick your ass."
After class, the other student waited at the door for Greg, then pushed him against a wall so hard his books fell. The boys hit the ground and began to wrestle.
A substitute teacher came out of the classroom, told them to stop and took their names.
Greg proceeded to his next class, and was unaware that he would be disciplined until he spoke with his mother, who had received a phone call from the school informing her of his suspension.
Jake Schneiker protested immediately. Greg insists he had no choice but to strike back, that if he had merely tried to block the other boy's blows, he would have been hurt and--perhaps worse--would have become a target for campus bullies.
Greg says, "You'd just never, ever be left alone."
In a hearing before physical education administrator Bob Sterrett, Greenway assistant principal Michael Dellisanti--who had called for the suspensions--said the incident was instigated by Greg, and that the other student's response was inappropriate. Dellisanti decided both boys violated the district's mutual combat policy, and suspended them.
Jake Schneiker responded that self-defense is a common-law right, and that his son was only defending himself.
The hearing officer disagreed.
So did the Glendale Union school board, which rejected the Schneikers' request for an appeal last Friday.
Dellisanti and district public information officer Carole Sabo refused to comment on the specifics of the case.
But Jake Schneiker intends to keep at it. He says he has convinced Glendale school officials to put Greg's suspension on hold until he pursues the matter in court.
Meanwhile, Jake Schneiker has filed a complaint with the Arizona Department of Education, alleging that the district does not have a policy that pertains to self-defense by a student.
On Monday, Michael Hughes, the state Department of Education's director of state and federal programs, responded with a letter to Glendale Superintendent James Keiffer. The Department of Education did not take aposition on the Schneikers' specific situation, but did ask Keiffer to provide the department with the district's self-defense policy, and if one does not exist, to provide a timetable for establishing one by April 5.
Hughes and Jake Schneiker argue that under Arizona law, a governing board of any school district is required to write rules pertaining to student self-defense.
But Tom Pickrell, counsel to the Arizona School Boards Association, interprets the law differently. He says the state law applies to the self-defense of district personnel, not students.
Pickrell says it is not uncommon for school administrators to punish both parties involved in a fight, even if one of the students claims self-defense.
He says, "When a fight occurs, I would say that there's kind of a presumption that everybody that was involved in the fight will be disciplined to some extent."
Pickrell supports that position. He explains, "There's a problem in trying to encourage kids to defend themselves, in the sense of [telling them], 'You can use whatever reasonable force you want.' I mean, we could have unbelievable fights going on if kids were encouraged to fight back as opposed to getting the help of a teacher or walking away from the situation."
Greg Schneiker is a burly, 215-pound kid with a sweet smile and a few spots of teenage acne. He says he's only been involved in one other fight--another case of self-defense. (He was not suspended that time.)
He's not involved in extracurricular sports, but prefers Greenway's marketing club and has belonged to Future Business Leaders of America.
Greg's already thinking about college. He wants to go into business--"anything that makes money."
He adds, "I'm worried about my record for college." He doesn't want the blemish of a suspension on his record and knows his grades would suffer if he missed five days of school.
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Jake Schneiker says he's spoken to many parents who support his position, but nobody has challenged the school policy.
He says, "Nobody ever pushes it."
Pickrell says, "It's pretty easy for a parent to say, well, my kid was defending himself."
He adds, "Frankly, there's a lot of parents who very seriously, strongly subscribe to the view that every kid has got to establish his turf by beating up a few kids, if necessary, by protecting himself.