Discipline code revised for schools Baltimore Co. board OKs using discretion for punishing students

'Mitigating circumstances'

Guideline changes prompted by expulsion involving pepper spray

July 03, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Responding to criticism of the school system's unbending discipline code -- and the expulsion of an honor student -- the Baltimore County schools superintendent last night outlined changes designed to give administrators more discretion in meting out punishment.

Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione said "mitigating circumstances" would be considered to determine the length of time an expelled or suspended student would be kept out of school. They include a student's disciplinary history, attendance and "citizenship," whether readmission would cause disruption, and recommendations of the school staff, according to rules presented last night to the school board.

The new rules -- which accompany a revised discipline code that the board approved last night -- follow complaints by school board members and others that the code gives administrators ** no choice but to expel students who commit offenses listed in the most serious "Category 3," which lumps use of a gun with carrying pepper spray to school.

"I think we've done the right thing in saying these are offenses that are very serious and if you [commit] them you're going to be punished," said board member Sanford V. Teplitzky.

But at the same time, he said, the rules allow for the fact that "some kids make mistakes."

The new discipline code largely mirrors one tabled two weeks ago, despite heated discussion at that meeting over such questions as why detonating an explosive device, which could burn or blind someone, is a lesser offense than possessing pepper spray, even when it isn't used.

Marchione told the board that an explosive device could mean nothing more than a firecracker, and "we want to give the principal some discretion if it's just a prank. We didn't want to expel a student automatically for that."

Also raising concern was a new rule presented by the superintendent that allows principals to reassign students to alternative schools or to home schooling if they have been involved in a violent act off school property and are believed to be a threat to others -- even if they are not charged with crimes.

Rules are drafted by the superintendent to describe the method of carrying out board policies, such as the discipline code, and do not require board approval.

Much of the debate over the discipline code was sparked by the controversial expulsion this spring of Chesapeake High School student Jodie Ulrich for carrying protective spray.

Last month, Marchione told the board that a survey of schools and community groups overwhelmingly showed that the public wanted to require expulsion for most of the 17 offenses now listed in the most serious category.

The revised code spells out pepper spray as a weapon that triggers automatic expulsion -- the old policy only mentions a "Mace derivative" -- and includes in that category possession of alcohol, the use of a pocketknife or a look-alike weapon.

But attorneys for Ulrich said the changes and Marchione's rules do not correct problems with the discipline code. Mandatory expulsion without considering each case individually, they say, is a violation of the student's rights.

"The bottom line is they call it an expulsion," said Kathleen A. Birrane, who successfully argued Ulrich's case in court and got her placed back in school.

"It is the labeling of expulsion that follows the student," she said. "[Marchione] can talk as much as he likes about whether they'd allow the student to reapply to the traditional program and the alternative educational vehicles. But it's the typing of the word 'expulsion' on the student's transcript that follows the student through his academic life."

She said Marchione's new rules are just an extension of a legal argument the school system used unsuccessfully in court -- that the superintendent had discretion in Ulrich's case because he ,, could decide how long she was to be out of school.

Typically in Baltimore County, expulsion means a quarter of the academic year in middle school or half the year in high school, during which the student receives educational services at home or elsewhere. But even under the former rules, the superintendent had the power to adjust the length of expulsion.

Birrane, a partner at the Kramon & Graham law firm who took the case free of charge for the nonprofit Schoolhouse Legal Services, called the new rules an attempt to protect the school system from future lawsuits.

"It seems that the new proposal of the superintendent is a way of institutionalizing that legal argument in order to further protect the superintendent from attacks on the legality of this system. It's not an effort to create flexibility. It's an effort to defend the system from litigation," Birrane said.

In other matters last night, the board elected two new officers for the coming year -- both seven-year board veterans. Paul S. Cunningham, formerly board vice president, was named president. Dunbar Brooks, building committee chairman, was elected vice president.

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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