A better school discipline code Baltimore County: Revised policy on weapons combines toughness and fairness.

July 05, 1996

THE REVISED DISCIPLINE code approved this week by the Baltimore County school board ought to satisfy critics who feel the old code was too inflexible.

The changes strike a balance between toughness and discretion that was missing last spring when Jodie Ulrich was expelled for a lengthy period for carrying pepper spray. The new rules still insist that weapons, including the spray, pose a danger and that students who carry them will be expelled. But they also dictate that circumstances should be considered when determining the length of that expulsion.

For all the side issues associated with it, the Ulrich case became a cause celebre for one reason: the penalty did not fit the crime.

Had her punishment been mitigated to something reasonable -- a two-week expulsion, for example -- her story might have raised some eyebrows for a day, tops. But the county school system, attempting to reverse years of inconsistent punishments and a rise in violence, was afraid that would send a message that it was not serious enough about getting tough on weapons and disruptive behavior.

Since then, school officials have had to wrestle with how to move toward safer schools without sacrificing fairness to individual students. They finally arrived at an answer, which is to exercise discretion after some length of automatic expulsion (or suspension, if you prefer that term.) Administrators have always had such power, but have been reluctant to use it. This codification frees them to use more latitude.

Opponents of this revision argue that there should be no mandatory expulsion or suspension for any action. But Baltimore County attempted such undefined, wishy-washy policy with poor results.

The threat of certain punishment has always been the surest way to deter unwelcome behavior. No rule will stop teen-aged hoodlums, but mandatory punishments will make kids who care about their records think twice before they forget to take their pepper spray off their key ring or bring something even more harmful to school.

Thus, schools reduce the number of dangerous items floating about. Thus, they return to the business of teaching -- a mission more essential than pursuit of a perfect punishment for pepper spray.

Pub Date: 7/05/96

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