Student expelled from Aberdeen school loses bid for reinstatement

August 23, 1992|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

A 13-year-old boy, expelled from Aberdeen Middle School in October for allegedly holding a paring knife to the face of another student, lost his bid to get his expulsion overturned.

The student, who is returning to regular classes this fall, wanted his record cleared and Harford County to pay for any tutors he might need to help him make up the lost work, among other things.

The Maryland State Board of Education dismissed on Tuesday a motion to hear the case because it found that the Harford school board had followed the correct procedure in expelling the youngster.

The state board would have heard the case only if it decided that the county school board had done something wrong, including violating the child's constitutional rights.

The seventh-grader, who is black, was expelled in October for allegedly holding a paring knife to the face of another student during a home economics class and also pointing the knife at other students in a threatening manner, according to legal documents filed in the case. The knife was a utensil used in the home economics class.

The boy's case has been closely followed by the Harford County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which had charged discrimination and violations the boy's constitutional and civil rights.

Joseph Bond, president of the local NAACP, said the boy was a victim of discrimination because, he said, white children who were also "horseplaying" with knives did not get into trouble.

"Other students were messing around with the knives, I wasn't the only one," the boy said.

Stuart Jay Robinson, the lawyer who represented the youngster, argued that the boy's case was bungled from the start when school principal Agnes S. Purnell suspended him and recommended to the school superintendent that he be expelled.

Mr. Robinson said he was asked to take the case by the NAACP; he is the legal counsel for the local chapter of the NAACP.

He said he may file for reconsideration of the case before the state school board. Mr. Robinson said he might pursue the case because the boy's predicament illustrates that the county school board, and school boards statewide, handle disciplinary infractions in violation of students' due process.

The child's constitutional rights were violated because Mrs. Purnell called the Aberdeen police to investigate without informing the child or his mother that they had the right to counsel and also that they had the right to remain silent, Mr. Robinson said.

Mr. Robinson said the school system is obligated to inform children and parents of their rights if law enforcement officials are summoned because the family may give information to the school which can be used against them in a court of law.

The boy was taken by his mother to the Aberdeen police station where he was fingerprinted and photographed, Mr. Robinson said. Like most juveniles, except those accused of very serious crimes, he was not arrested and not charged, although the school board could have asked for him to be charged with delinquency, Mr. Robinson said.

Anne Sterling, school board president, said that what the school system does and what the law enforcement agencies do are two different things and that there is no obligation for the school to read a child his rights.

"There is no question in my mind that we acted for one reason: to remove from the school setting a child who by his actions was seriously threatening the safety of children around him," she said.

The boy's mother and Mr. Bond said the youngster was singled out for expulsion because he is black.

"There were other kids in the situation at the same time, as a group they were doing wrong, but only my son was singled out and punished," the mother said. "The way that the school system has stereotyped him . . . really made me mad."

Mrs. Purnell, who is also black, said the charges of discrimination were "absurd." She said 29.5 percent of the students at Aberdeen Middle School are minorities and that the expulsion rate for minorities is about the same percentage.

"The claims by the NAACP are irresponsible," Mrs. Purnell said. "They do the entire community a disservice by not focusing on the facts.

"I asked the child to demonstrate on me . . . what he had done and it was frightening to me as an adult. The . . . teacher in the room, the other children and even [this boy] gave the same story about what had happened," she said.

The youngster and his mother insist that the boy was engaging in innocent "horseplay" when he held another student and put the paring knife to his face.

But Ray Keech, the superintendent of county schools, said such behavior can't be tolerated even if it was horseplay.

"If a youngster in school is in possession of a knife, or a dangerous weapon of any kind, and holds it to the face of another youngster that is a serious matter. We have an obligation to all students and teachers to show that this will not be condoned, even if it was horseplay," Mr. Keech said.

The paring knife standard equipment for home economics.

After his expulsion from Aberdeen Middle School the youngster was enrolled in the county's alternative education system at Bel Air High School. He completed the program satisfactorily and will be entering eighth grade next year at another middle school.

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