BRIANA SCROGGINS, Standard-Examiner file photo
Wahlquist Junior High in Farr West is pictured Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014.
OGDEN — Weber County officials have invoked a 122-year-old Utah Supreme Court decision in their defense against allegations that COVID-19 protocols violated the constitutional rights of a junior high student who was told to stay home due to his exposure to the coronavirus.
In 1900, the state’s high court ruled that Salt Lake City’s boards of health and education were legally justified in excluding unvaccinated children from city schools during a smallpox epidemic. The court said while it was true that a child had a right to attend school, the privilege may be lost due to misconduct or refusal to obey the rules.
That legal framework holds true now, attorneys for Weber County said in a document responding to a civil suit filed on Jan. 6 by Benjamin and DeAnn Heaton of Plain City, who alleged their son was illegally kept from class at Wahlquist Junior High School in 2020.
The Heatons’ suit, in 2nd District Court, claimed their son was twice held in a Wahlquist storage closet after showing up to classes while under a COVID-19 quarantine order. The Weber School District denied the student was kept in a storage closet.
The Heatons accused officials of the school district, the Weber County Sheriff’s Office, the Utah State Board of Education and the Weber-Morgan Health Department of conspiring to block the teenager from disobeying an Oct. 30, 2020, directive that he stay home from school because he had been exposed to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.
The USBE and the school district have yet to respond to the lawsuit in court. But Weber County, representing the health department and the sheriff’s office, filed a motion on Feb. 11 asking Judge Craig Hall to dismiss the case.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected society in innumerable ways, and government actors worldwide have taken unprecedented actions — often with incomplete information — in an attempt to stem the disease’s potentially deadly tide,” the motion said. “The authority of government actors to make such decisions, even flawed decisions, has long been recognized as a proper exercise of state power in Utah, especially in public education.”
The county’s motion said case law, including the more than century-old state Supreme Court case, demonstrates that “a child can be excluded from school for the sake of their health and the health of others.”
The Heatons’ suit also alleged unconstitutional interference by sheriff’s deputies during the time of the student trying to board a school bus while under the no-attendance order. A sheriff’s deputy once talked to Benjamin Heaton, a deputy had a picture of Heaton, and a sheriff’s vehicle parked near their house at least once, but those actions do not “rise to the level of a due process violation,” the county response said.
At the time, sheriff’s deputies said they were in the area just to keep the peace. A YouTube video that Benjamin Heaton posted showed him confronting school personnel and demanding that his son be allowed to board the bus.
According to the suit, the boy was told to stay home until at least Nov. 6, 2020, because of the exposure, but he arrived at school Nov. 2. He allegedly was intercepted by school personnel and “forced to remain in a storage closet with no window.” He returned to school the next day and was put back in the closet, the suit said.
The Heatons’ attorney, J.M. Philpot, wrote in the suit that the claim is based on students’ constitutional right to attend public school and that the defendants “unlawfully adopted and implemented arbitrary rules and policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Officials allegedly targeted the Heatons “to perpetuate an agenda that required fear and intimidation in order to cover up their absolute lack of evidence that school age children and their teachers are at some level of risk that would justify violation of fundamental and unalienable rights.”
Weber School District officials said in a statement in response to the suit in January that no one was put in a closet — the student reportedly was placed in a 300-square-foot room. “We believe the facts of this case will show the school and district followed the health guidelines that were in place at that time in order to protect students and staff against COVID-19,” the district said.
The county’s motion seeking dismissal of the case argued that the suit has no legitimate, legal basis and should be thrown out.
Philpot did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.
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