Expulsion raises questions over rule Balto. Co. officials say honor student's case proves policy too rigid

April 26, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Elected officials and a Baltimore County school board member are calling for a restructuring of the school system's inflexible expulsion policy, after the dismissal of an honor student-athlete who inadvertently carried pepper spray into school.

"Rules need a human face, and that's what we're lacking here," Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat and chairman of the county legislative delegation, said yesterday. "I always worry when good students get caught up in this process and confront a system that has no compassion."

Said board member Robert F. Dashiell: "I support the student. The rigid application of rules superficially appears to be fair and consistent, but almost never is. Without faith in the system, it will come unraveled."

Jodie Ulrich, 17, was expelled from Chesapeake High School in Essex last month after she forgot to remove a canister of pepper spray from her key chain. Another student released some of the spray in a cafeteria, and both were expelled for violating the county's rules of conduct, which classify the protective spray with guns and knives.

Jodie is appealing the expulsion and studying under home schooling. The other student has not appealed her dismissal.

Meanwhile, Jodie 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.

Under the school system's zero tolerance rule, officials had no discretion to administer less severe punishment to Jodie, a member of the National Honor Society, three-sport athlete and hospital volunteer who also worked a mall job at night.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, who supports dealing swiftly with aggressive and disruptive students, has said there was a lack of due process and fairness in Jodie's case. He talked yesterday with school Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione about the school board changing the expulsion process.

"Right now, the expulsion rule is more arbitrary and less fair than anything in our criminal justice system," Mr. Ruppersberger said. "If somebody shoots someone, you deal with that in a way different than when somebody steals a candy bar. We should use this young lady's case to re-evaluate the whole policy. Each case should stand on its own merits."

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, whose district includes Essex, said he will discuss with other council members how the zero tolerance policy can be implemented more fairly.

"Zero tolerance scoops up so many children for which it is not intended and punishes them unjustly for the wrongs of a few students in the name of safe schools," said Lina Ayres, an attorney and official of the Schoolhouse Legal Services and Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore.

Since September, the nonprofit group has received calls from 250 parents across Maryland seeking assistance for their children. The group is representing 120 families, approximately 25 in Baltimore County.

Last year, more than 50,000 students were suspended or expelled from Maryland schools, according to Ms. Ayres.

Jodie carried pepper spray for protection while walking to her car at night, after her job at White Marsh Mall. The spray falls into the school rules' most serious category -- with guns and knives.

"That in itself is ludicrous," Mr. Dashiell said. "Banks aren't held up with pepper spray."

Jodie's mother, JoAnn Osborne, said yesterday: "Why can't the system admit they made a mistake? Why can't they re-evaluate what they have done -- how they have destroyed her life with their rules -- and get her back in school? I'd like this expunged from her records, let her be normal again. She's had more than her share of punishment."

But school officials continued to defend the expulsion.

Dr. Marchione has not moved to reverse the expulsion, a spokesman said. Dr. Marchione did not respond to a request for a telephone interview.

"The superintendent would not intervene in an individual case," said spokesman Donald I. Mohler III.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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