Howard Aison, former Amsterdam city court judge and current Montgomery County assistant district attorney, addressed the Greater Amsterdam School District Board of Education on February 17 and offered the support of the district attorney’s office in addressing student conduct at Amsterdam High School.
Aison made it clear that the district attorney’s office could not become involved when students violate the district’s code of conduct, only penal law offenses. He went on to say that the district attorney’s office would not be physically present in the school observing offenses or charging students based on personal observation, and they would not conduct any investigations. Rather, the office could become involved upon request in investigations being performed by others.
Aison also stipulated that the district attorney’s office would not direct that any students be charged with a penal law offense. He said, “Basically with regards to conduct at Amsterdam High School, the ball is in your court.”
According to Aison, the district attorney’s office could advise whether a student has committed a penal law offense and what offense can be charged. He noted that the district attorney’s office would prosecute any student charged with a penal law offense and if convicted, would recommend a sentence to the court.
He explained that when a student is convicted of a penal law offense, the district attorney’s office typically recommends that the court impose a one year conditional discharge and community service. The conditional discharge requires that the student not commit any more penal law offenses, attend school on a regular basis, obey all reasonable requests of teachers and administrators, not get any referrals, not be suspended, not be tardy to school or classes, and not be disruptive in school.
Aison noted the intent of charging students in this manner, saying, “We are not talking about sending students to jail. We are talking about punishing students for their behavior in school…penal law violation behavior, not code of conduct behavior. But depending on the nature of the offense committed there is always a possibility of jail.”
Following a conviction, the district attorney’s office may send a copy of the conditional discharge to the school principal if given authorization by the school board. The district attorney’s office will have the student or, if the student is under 18, the parents of the student sign a release waiving the provisions of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act as part of the conditional discharge. Signing this release enables the school to notify the district attorney’s office if the student violates any of the conditions of the discharge.
In the event that a convicted student violates a condition of discharge, they may be jailed or receive additional punishment.
Aison explained, “For example, if the student is tardy, then we are notified. Yes, it is a violation of conditional discharge. The district attorney’s office consults with the school administration to see what exactly do you want done with that situation. Do you want this person who was tardy to go to jail for being tardy, or would you like more community service hours? So, the district attorney’s office will always consult with the school administrators in that regard.”
While Aison made it clear that the school district would have to direct any actions, he noted the importance to all students that action be taken, saying “Penal law offenses should be taken seriously by any student, because they interfere with all of the other students who are here to learn. As I said, we are available, but if I leave here tonight and I never hear from you again, that’s the way it is because the ball is in your court. You have to take these actions. The district attorney’s office will assist you, but you are the ones, and I say you the administrators or whoever, that have to take the actions. Once there is a charge filed, then the district attorney’s office will take it from there.”
Aison said he has particular interest in Amsterdam High School, given that he, his wife, and children are alumni. Aison said that was made aware of possible problems in the school after reading a report about a student representative to the board of education, Gemma Liverio, who raised concerns that some students felt unsafe in the hallways.
Aison said that he had also heard from a number of people regarding conduct at the school, although he did not go into specifics as he could not say whether they were true or not.
He concluded, “All I can say is I’m here to help. I can’t push you to do anything. If you want to take action, I’m here to help.”
Board of Education President Kent McHeard thanked Aison for his passion for the students and said, “When or if the need arises, we will be in touch.”
At the same meeting, the board of education appointed Al Mattice to a new position as the high school’s third assistant principal. The position was created to provide a visible presence in hallways and common areas with the authority as an administrator to address problems as they arise, while fostering a positive educational environment.
Mattice was the curriculum coordinator for English language arts at the high school. His appointment will last through the current school year. District leaders will then evaluate the effectiveness of the position, and the school board will decide whether to continue the position into the 2016-17 school year.
Superintendant Thomas Perillo said that the school district would also be examining conduct in the building, climate of the building, and the perception of the school and what it should be through focus groups facilitated by the Capital Region BOCES.