School board hotly debates revised discipline code Principals have no discretion, critics say

June 19, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Superintendent Anthony Marchione's tough student discipline policy ran up against school board members who questioned its fairness and sent it back for changes last night after an uncharacteristically provocative debate.

Baltimore County school board members, under fire in recent months for the expulsion of an honor student for carrying pepper spray to school, seemed uneasy with some parts of proposed revisions that mandates expulsion for certain offenses without giving principals any choice.

"One thing that frustrates me to no end is that from the point of the infraction to the hearings, no one has any discretion," said board member Dunbar Brooks. "No one can make a decision.

If you can't trust educators to use discretion, he said, "then I don't want them teaching my children."

The board sent the policy back to Marchione for changes.

The school system's hard stance on serious offenders has drawn both criticism and praise. The "zero tolerance" discipline philosophy has become popular among many principals who find it effective to call police when students commit acts that would be considered criminal elsewhere -- such as fighting. But it also is stirring concern, particularly in black communities, where some parents complain of excessive police activity in schools.

The March expulsion of Chesapeake High School student Jodie Ulrich brought the system's discipline controversies under a harsh new spotlight, prompting Marchione to order a public opinion survey of whether to mandate expulsion for any offenses and if so, which ones.

Schools and community groups, which responded overwhelmingly, voted to keep the code much the way it is, with a "category 3" of about 20 offenses that lead to expulsion.

Marchione's proposed new policy spells out pepper spray as a weapon that would trigger expulsion. The superintendent said such a policy is essential to keeping order and consistency, noting that student behavior worsened in years when the discipline code was made more flexible.

But last night's discussion spread to broader issues among a board more prone to public agreement than dissent. Why not let principals decide, case by case, who should be suspended or expelled? Why is detonating an explosive device a lesser offense than carrying pepper spray?

For how long should an expelled student be expelled? (Currently in Baltimore County, it's a quarter of the academic year in middle school or half the year in high school, all while receiving educational services at home or elsewhere, at considerable cost.)

Board member Sanford Teplitzky, among others, said he supported a list of offenses that mandated expulsion, but suggested an accompanying policy allowing for mitigating circumstances.

Robert Dashiell argued that while the criminal justice system treats possession of a weapon or drug differently from the use of them, the schools were treating them the same -- mandatory expulsion for carrying a pocket knife or a bottle of beer.

"Possession ought to be the same as someone selling it out of the trunk of a car?" he asked.

"Folks, schools are not society at large," Marchione shot back, at one point hitting the table with his fist, his voice much louder than usual. "Maintaining control in a school is not the same as maintaining it in society at large. "

The audience applauded.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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