Discipline code minus common sense Pepper spray case: Baltimore County school officials should reinstate expelled student.

April 26, 1996

ARE SCHOOL administrators in Baltimore County required to check their common sense at the door?

How else to explain their decision to expel a junior at Chesapeake High School for what all sides in this story agree was the accidental release of protective pepper spray from a canister on the girl's keychain.

As recounted in The Sun yesterday by Joe Nawrozki, Jodie Ulrich, 17, was expelled from school last month after another student sprayed the chemical irritant that Ms. Ulrich had inadvertently brought into school on her keychain. She keeps it for protection because she works at night in a shopping mall.

Officials are adamant they had to kick Ms. Ulrich out of school because pepper spray a "Category 3" item (along with guns and knives) that trigger instant expulsion. Forget for a moment that assault and indecent exposure are among Category 2 infractions carrying a lesser penalty of "possible" expulsion. And forget that Ms. Ulrich is a National Honor Society member, community volunteer and three-sport athlete who had teachers writing in her defense.

Indeed, if an honor student or a star athlete threatens discipline in a school, including the "accidental" carrying of a gun or knife, he or she be punished like any pupil. But to not weigh the undisputed facts of this incident against the severity of the punishment mocks the goal of a discipline policy. The student and her mother admit she should be punished, but short of expulsion. Indeed, the girl should not be made to sit out the rest of this school year.

Supporters of this decision argue that absolute discipline is the only discipline. But the behavior code must be kept current: It grants deference for a pocket knife, the age-old Boy Scout tool, but not for pepper spray, which many women now carry for self-defense. Are school officials so panicked by having to make a judgment call they have created a paint-by-numbers system with no room for discretion?

Fortunately, the spray released that March night in a community college cafeteria where Ms. Ulrich was taking an advanced science class did not temporarily blind anyone. Unfortunately, timidity and rigidity have had that effect on the county school bureaucracy.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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