Student beware School discipline: For pupils, it's a bad time to get caught breaking the rules.

June 13, 1996

THREE HIGH SCHOOL seniors in Harford County, including an honors student, are barred from graduation ceremonies after being accused of growing several marijuana plants in a science lab.

A softball player in Howard County misses her junior season, pivotal for scholarship eligibility, because she was allegedly caught with a can of beer on a school-sanctioned ski trip.

Most Marylanders are familiar with the story of Jodie Ulrich, the Baltimore County student returned to school by a judge, though education officials had refused to allow her back after her pepper-spray canister was set off by a classmate in a school cafeteria.

In case students and parents miss the pattern here, school administrators are not messing around. Discipline has become the overriding issue in schools, in urban and rural jurisdictions alike. Boards of education and superintendents feel they have a mandate from the public to provide safe, orderly places for learning. Teachers and staffs, in particular, feel parents haven't a clue as to the disrespect and fiendish behavior of their offspring inside the classroom. That came though loud and clear in the outsized reaction to the Ulrich expulsion, which seemed to garner greater support from educators than the public.

Student suspensions and expulsions held steady statewide from although they increased markedly in suburbanizing counties. Frederick County, for example, was booting out twice as many kids in 1994 as in 1991.

It is generally accepted that students got away with more in the 1970s and '80s, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-flower power. The people who run schools are feeling pressure to swing the pendulum back.

In theory, the public concurs with that shift. However, officials shouldn't forget two things: Because they are not dealing in a legal system, with its checks, balances and trial by peers, they must make doubly certain that the punishment fits the crime. Also, punishments should distinguish between acts of malice and stupid errors in judgment that are part of growing up. As for students and parents, they should be doubly aware that even "good kids" who fail to steer clear of mischief may find themselves in the wrong place -- at an especially wrong time.

Pub Date: 6/13/96

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