Views mixed on school disciplinary policy Board members react to senior's suspension

February 10, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

After a Southern Senior High School honor student was suspended for the rest of his senior year for carrying a penknife on his key chain, The Sun asked school board members and others involved in education their opinion of the county school system's weapons policy.

Generally, they saw a need to hasten the appeal process. And although they agreed that weapons should be kept out of school, they disagreed over whether a progressive discipline policy is better than one that calls for automatic long-term suspension or expulsion for the slightest offense.

Last week, 70 Southern High students descended on the county school board to protest what they considered a heavy-handed policy that resulted in John Destry, 18, being suspended for the rest of his senior year because of the penknife.

The rules ban students from possessing weapons on school grounds and at school-sponsored events. In elementary schools, principals may recommend the length of a suspension and conditions for re-admission to school for violators. In the upper grades, the student must be suspended for a semester or expelled. A student found in possession of a gun is expelled for one year.

Disciplinary actions may be appealed to the school board, a process that takes at least two months.

The Sun invites readers to send their opinions in Letters to the Editor. Mail them to The Sun for Anne Arundel, 8131 Ritchie Highway, Pasadena 21122.

Donald M. Smith

Smith, administrator of the Association of Educational Leaders, the school administrators union, says principals would prefer more leeway and a faster appeals process.

"When you deal with kids, you always want to have an escape clause somewhere. It's a tough, tough call when something happens with this policy."

He added: "There are kids who just plain forget, really. And kids who say. 'It was in my coat pocket and I forgot,' all kinds of stuff like that. If a kid brings a knife to school and you ask him about it, you think he is going to tell you, 'Oh, yeah, I brought it to stab Freddie'?"

Smith also worried about a teen's ability to manage his anger.

"My point is that when you have a kid who has something like that and has no intention of using it, and then gets angry over something and uses it. Or if it is stolen."

"I think you'd like to be able to weigh the matter maybe get a second opinion. Maybe instead you could have a few days' suspension and bring the kid and his parents back in with a contract not to violate the policy or you're gone.

"When I was a principal, I always had in the back of my mind, this could be my son or my daughter and how would I want somebody to handle this.

"In self-defense, school systems try to make policies that are suit-proof -- if A, then B -- and you do that for everybody. The unfortunate part of that is you lose the human element.

"One of the prime motivators for [these policies] is that there is no judgment call for suspending kid A who happens to be black or not suspending kid A who is black."

"They need to streamline that [appeals] process. It may mean they need to have somebody else hear the appeals."

Carlesa R. Finney

Finney, an at-large member of the school board, fretted that school officials are advised by lawyers who understand the most minute details of the policy, many parents and students, on the other hand, have no advocates, nor do they know they can bring one with them to any meeting with school officials.

But the policy and regulations are sound, she says.

"It's good, it's solid, it's staying. I think we need to brush up on some of the communication to students and parents, number one on the policy and number two on the process."

At Finney's suggestion, the board last week asked school officials and lawyers to draft an explanation to parents of their rights in the suspension / expulsion and appeals process.

"If I change anything, it is ways to manage the policy, the time for appeal. But leave your guns and knives and whatever else at home.

"The only way you can change [the policy] is to change the appeals process. The time is too long. Maybe we should have students, members of the community to just hear student appeals. I don't know, that is off the top of my head. But I am open to suggestions.

"The message we want to send is no weapons at school. That's it.

"When there is a true mistake, there are two things a student can do. They can take it to the principal and say. 'Can you hold this for me?' and pick it up when you leave, and they can appeal. And they can have 50 or 60 students come with them.

Steven H. White Jr.

Steven, a student member of the school board and a senior at Meade High School, says there are difficult issues to weigh, among them the possibility that under a different policy, all students would not be treated equally.

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