IMAGINE, for a moment, that that pepper spray Jodie Ulrich forgot to take off her key ring had hit another student in the face. Picture the child screaming in pain and TV footage of the ambulance rushing from school to hospital.
Jodie is lucky things didn't happen that way. Because if they had this story would have played very differently. She would not have been the victim. Instead of calling for leniency, we'd have been calling for tougher rules. Newspapers and TV crews would have focused, not on Jodie's parents asking why their daughter was punished so harshly, but on the injured child's parents demanding to know how such a dangerous substance ended up in school.
Of course, Jodie can't be punished for what might have happened. No one got hurt, and common sense screams that her punishment is too harsh given the circumstances, which surely everyone from here to Tibet knows by now: She carried pepper spray for protection, didn't realize Baltimore County schools would expel her for carrying it, forgot to take it off her key ring, didn't set it off, is deeply sorry, had a sterling record, promises never to do it again. She's been punished enough. She belongs back in class.
Still, a reprieve, if one is granted, won't occur in a vacuum. I'm all for forgiving Jodie. But we need to think about what forgiving her means.
It means, for one thing, that we can't blast school systems for not doing enough to safeguard kids when one day down the road pepper spray belonging to someone just like her winds up sending some kid to an emergency room.
There's been a tendency this past week to pooh-pooh pepper spray as the chemical equivalent of a pop gun. But it's dangerous. Though it's never been proved that pepper spray killed anyone, Cornelius J. Behan, Baltimore County's respected former chief of police and the school system's consultant on discipline, cites studies showing that 22 people died after being exposed to it. It causes excruciating pain, intense burning of the eyes and nose and swelling of the respiratory tract. Chief Behan says he's seen it knock an adult flat; no one is sure how it would affect a child.
If he had his way, possessing it would remain a ''Category 3'' offense, just like possession of guns and knives, punishable by automatic one-term expulsion for middle-schoolers and two-term for high school students. I think his compromise -- expulsion for use, discretionary penalties for possession -- make more sense, since the spray is universally considered a non-lethal weapon. But we have to agree now not to hypocritically blame the school system if that proves untrue sometime hence.
Forgiving Jodie means something else, too. It means we must ask whether we really want consistent punishments and ''zero tolerance'' policies for any weapon or violent act. Parents, teachers and elected leaders have been begging for both as suburban classrooms become increasingly disruptive.
There has been a growing realization that some things -- guns, knives, assaults on teachers -- are so dangerous and so destructive to the school environment that the rules prohibiting them must never be bent. But there is no point in such a policy if the community demands mercy every time a student with extenuating circumstances runs up against it.
Yes, Jodie's plight seems ridiculous partly because it involves pepper spray. But the same pleas to consider the circumstances will crop up one of these days when an innocent third-grader takes a loaded gun to school thinking it's a toy, or when a high-school girl repeatedly harassed by sexist bullies finally gets fed up and brings a knife to protect herself, or when in a moment of anger a boy strikes a teacher who called him a name.
Keeping schools safe
''Some circumstances merit tolerance, no question about that,'' says Chief Behan. ''But we're talking about keeping schools safe. How do you deal with increased violence by forgiving people who say they forgot the rule,'' or who have some other excuse? That is the broad issue Jodie's plight raises.
In the last week I've heard a good many people second-guess whether zero-tolerance policies should exist at all. I've heard some compelling arguments: That we want our schools to teach children the meaning of fairness. That if the legal system recognizes different degrees of wrongdoing for adults, schools should consider children's circumstances. That children have the right to be judged as individuals. That keeping a knife in your locker isn't the same as holding it to someone's throat.
No, it isn't, and in adult society we recognize the difference. But in school, things are different. In school, as Anne Arundel school board Chairman Joseph H. Foster said this week, ''The knife is the issue. Who knows when that knife is going to become a weapon?'' Its very presence makes a school dangerous.
The question then becomes: Should a student's individual rights outweigh the right of parents to send their children to schools confident that they are unequivocally safe? If Jodie Ulrich's plight has convinced us that they do, then her little canister of pepper spray may have done more damage than we realize.
Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 5/05/96