He's not making trouble in school, but now what?

Comment

December 22, 1996|By Brian Sullam

KEVIN HAMMETT is one of the 200 students who have been expelled from Anne Arundel County public schools so far this year.

When other children his age are attending school, Kevin spends his days watching television, doing some chores around home and more recently helping adults sweep and clean at the United Methodist Church's West River Conference Center.

The lanky 14-year-old would still be a ninth grader at Southern High School had he not landed two punches on the face of one of his classmates in early October.

Under Anne Arundel's zero-tolerance discipline policy, students who assault another are subject to immediate suspension. Principals have the option of asking for an extended suspension, even expulsion.

Kevin was expelled from school. He won't be able to return until next September, if then.

Maintaining discipline and order in the schools -- not just here but across the state and nation -- has become a top priority. A few years ago, parents believed administrators and teachers were losing control. Reports of fights, weapons and drugs scared everyone into imposing a regime of swift and severe punishment.

The get-tough strategy has worked, officials say. The number of expulsions is dropping, and administrators believe they have restored an atmosphere of order to most schools.

Indeed, learning cannot take place in a chaotic environment where students have to worry about being attacked, threatened with harm from guns or knives or solicited to buy drugs. It was entirely appropriate to make violence-free, weapon-free and drug-free schools the system's top priority.

Removing troublemakers from school is appropriate. The real question is what a school system does with the Kevins of the world.

Most kids make mistakes. Part of growing up is discovering that certain types of behavior are not acceptable under any circumstances and that others might be appropriate under others.

School officials know that eighth and ninth graders are the ones most frequently in trouble for bad behavior. Some of them don't know better. Others know how to behavior but have decided to make a name for themselves by showing off.

Under the zero-tolerance discipline policy the school board has in place, punishment is swift and severe for a number of unacceptable behaviors. It has been successful in detering bad behavior by the vast majority of students.

One size fits all?

The current approach, however, fails to differentiate between perennial troublemakers and first-time offenders. For first-time offenders with less than stellar records, the results are Draconian.

Kevin Hammett's case illustrates this predicament. He is not a "great student," his mother acknowledges. He was disciplined for talking in class earlier this year. He had not been involved in any prior assaults before he punched a classmate.

Nevertheless, because school officials determined that Kevin's assault was premeditated, they decided that expulsion for the ,, entire academic year was appropriate.

A police officer who happened to be at Southern at the time for another reason cited Kevin for assault, sending him through the juvenile justice system.

Kevin appeared before a hearing officer and was ordered to serve 15 hours of community service, which he has completed.

The punishment from the school system continues. He hasn't been in a classroom for more than two months. Each day he falls farther behind, and will have to repeat the ninth grade when he returns next fall.

In fact, returning to public school may not be possible. His mother refuses to have him participate in the system's Responsible Action Program because she doesn't believe her son belongs in a program with truly aggressive children. So Kevin may not be able to re-enter school next year.

Now that the system can quickly remove the troublemakers, it is time to think about what happens to the Kevins of the county.

Kicking them out of school removes them from the very environment that has the potential to modify their behavior for fTC the better. Lolling around home or hanging out on the streets for months is more likely to reinforce the worst kinds of behaviors.

The school system has lost touch with about 70 percent of the students expelled so far this year. In the worst case scenario, these kids may come from families so dysfunctional no really cares that they aren't attending school. In the best case scenario, their parents have enrolled them in private schools or moved out of the county to enroll them in public school.

Next February, Anne Arundel's alternative high school will open and channel disruptive students to a school where they will continue their educations.

All of us will be better off to have these students counseled and taught in a school setting. Some might even change their behavior for the better and not make the same mistake again.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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