Teen-agers protest student's expulsion 70 tell school board policy is unfair

February 06, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Seventy Southern Senior High School students descended on the Anne Arundel County school board yesterday to protest the automatic expulsion of a classmate who carried a penknife on his key chain to school.

The teen-agers told board members that the "zero-tolerance policy" on weapons adopted eight months ago deprived their principal of having any say in the matter -- and could ruin the future of a promising young man. The board's rule demands expulsion for possession of a weapon on school grounds. No ifs, ands or buts.

Board members defended the policy but said that they would review it later this year.

"We've been in a democratic system for 200 years. And I don't think we have worked out all the kinks," said student Adam Leitch. "And you've had this policy eight months?" His classmates applauded.

Yesterday's protest came after the 300 seniors went into an assembly to order caps and gowns Tuesday at the Harwood school and most walked out after realizing that the absence of their friend meant he would not walk across the stage with them for graduation.

Principal Clifton Prince arranged with administrators from Board of Education headquarters in Annapolis for the students to express their concerns directly to the policy-makers.

"I have not seen that kind of protest since the '60s," said Prince, who has worked in county schools for 29 years.

He did not punish students involved in the walkout, and parents wrote notes to excuse their children from school for yesterday's board meeting. Petitions of protest were signed by 196 students.

Students said that last month, a bright male student left his keys atop his locker and they were turned in to the office. The key chain also included a penknife, and when the student went to find his keys at the lost and found, he was suspended and expelled.

Student Robert Mitchell said not only would his friend miss graduation, but probably he would lose the full college scholarship he had won.

"A mistake could cost someone their future," said senior Brian Kilpatrick.

Students claimed the zero-tolerance policy was unfair, and they were unpersuaded by school board members' arguments about the need to enforce rules equally.

A common defense of zero-tolerance rules is that they eliminate any possibility of racial discrimination. Nationwide, black students, especially males, have a higher expulsion rate than any other group.

Student Government Association President Lisa Silor told the board that its failure to give principals any discretion in enforcing the rules eroded the power that they need to function.

"You have to give some kind of power to the captain of the ship or the crew is going to go into mutiny," she said.

If nothing else, students said, making an appeal to the board be easier and more speedy. Now, a student expelled can expect to lose a full semester before being heard by the board.

The students made a number of other arguments in their hour before the board.

Jacqueline Rolfes said the weapons policy was ludicrous because a student caught with illegal drugs only gets suspended. Penknives, unlike drugs, are legal outside school.

Kilpatrick said that if he spent the night at someone's house and came to school with his shaving razor, he could be expelled.

Later in the meeting, while board members reviewed first-semester discipline statistics, board member Michael J. McNelly of Dunkirk noted that baseball bats can be used for sports -- but also as bludgeons.

Last year, Southern Senior High accounted for 28 of 576 expulsions from county schools.

Pub Date: 2/06/97

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