Model student assails her expulsion Her pepper spray found, released by girl in a cafeteria

April 25, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In the hardscrabble world of Baltimore County's east side, Jodie Ulrich stood above most of her Chesapeake High School peers. She was a member of the National Honor Society, played three sports, volunteered at a geriatric center and worked a mall job at night.

Then she made a terrible mistake:

The 17-year-old junior forgot to remove a canister of pepper spray from her key chain.

When another student picked up the key chain and released some of the spray in a cafeteria, both were expelled for violating Baltimore County's strict rules of conduct, which lumps the protective spray together with guns and knives.

"The message I get is I can't make a mistake," said Jodie, whose case has sparked criticism from teachers -- and the county executive.

"I have lost respect for the system and the people who don't care about my record. They took the only incident in my life and turned it to shambles. I have never been to the principal's office, never."

Jodie, who has become depressed and is being counseled by a psychologist, has missed several important tests, her junior prom and the lacrosse season.

And though she will be reinstated as a senior in September, the expulsion will stay on her student record, which she fears might hurt her chances of getting into college.

But officials of the 102,000-student county school system stand by Jodie's expulsion.

"One of the strengths of this system of suspensions and expulsions has been consistency," said Donald I. Mohler III, school system spokesman.

Added Mr. Mohler, a former principal:

"I have often told students, 'You've got to know up front that this policy will not take into account that you are the star on the basketball team, the editor of the paper or president of the honor society.' "

According to official documents and Jodie's accounts of the incident, on March 6 she entered Dundalk Community College, where she was taking an accelerated biology course as part of the Allied Health Program.

The small can of pepper spray on her key ring -- which Jodie carried while walking to her car at night after her job in a White Marsh Mall candy store -- was on a cafeteria table. Normally, she said, she keeps it in her car.

Another student picked up the canister and sprayed it under the table, causing a partial evacuation of the students in the cafeteria. Later, when asked by officials who owned the spray, Jodie quickly admitted that it was hers.

"If I had lied, I wouldn't be in this trouble," said Jodie of Sue Creek Landing. "But I avoid lying. And I didn't realize having pepper spray carried such heavy consequences."

Officials would not identify the other student; unlike Jodie, she is not appealing the expulsion.

After two hearings upholding Jodie's expulsion, county school officials are softening their stance and plan an early review. Michael E. Goldsmith, a representative of Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, was hearing officer in Jodie's case. He said that because of the circumstances of her case, she will receive an appeal hearing by the superintendent and school board in June, which will allow her to return to Chesapeake High in September as a senior. Normally, that hearing would have been in November.

"Her academic career will be right on track," Mr. Goldsmith said.

Still, others are critical of the school's action.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III questioned the school system's handling of discipline problems.

While supporting punishment of students who disrupt class or engage in violence, he said, "Each case has to stand on its own merits. What's absent in this process is fundamental fairness and due process. The student's character and reputation should be taken into consideration."

Pepper spray, available at most sporting goods and discount stores, and purchased by many women for personal protection, causes eye and skin irritation when sprayed at an attacker.

The county's student handbook, written 20 years ago and reviewed last fall, lists possessing "any Mace derivative or tear gas device" as "examples of offenses which shall result in expulsion."

Pepper spray is ranked with guns, knives and straight razors. By contrast, possession of a pocket knife is an offense "for which the student would normally be suspended and which may result in expulsion."

After Jodie's expulsion, many of her teachers defended her with letters and telephone calls.

One was Jennifer Hayes-Klosteridis of Dundalk's biology department, where Jodie was earning a separate grade for college credit.

"They should revisit their decision," she said. "Jodie was a model student, getting one of the highest grades in my class. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"It was cut and dried, see you later. In any court in the United States, you wouldn't see someone treated that way."

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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