Discipline for children and adults Two cases: Juxtaposition of justice for Baltimore County teacher, Anne Arundel student.

February 17, 1997

WE NOTICED AN IRONY in the coincidental juxtaposition of two news stories this month -- one about a Baltimore County teacher who grabbed an 11-year-old, another about a high schooler in Anne Arundel County who carried a penknife to class.

The teacher, who was charged with assault, had his case set aside by the courts after it became clear that the grabbing incident was an aberration. Many parents spoke on his behalf. Meanwhile, the senior, a nice young man with no history of troublemaking, was automatically suspended for the rest of the year under his school system's tough policy against weapons. Many students spoke up on his behalf.

It is easy for those who feel discretion should figure into school discipline to look at these stories and see a lack of fairness. Why should schools demand more of kids than society expects of adults? Is it right that a teacher who behaves improperly gets off but a good student who makes an honest mistake does not?

Except that the teacher did not get off. He was removed from the classroom immediately after being accused, as was the student. The Baltimore County school system still must decide whether to allow him to teach again. He was taken to criminal court. The assault charge may be reopened during the next three years if the teacher gets in trouble again. The courts considered the circumstances and made a fair judgment.

It is too soon to know if the Anne Arundel student will get a fair judgment because the case has not been adjudicated. The boy was suspended just two weeks ago. A review of the circumstances by his principal will occur soon, a school spokesman said; after that the student is entitled to appeal to higher school officials.

While comparing a criminal matter to the school discipline process is apples and oranges, one would hope school officials everywhere would apply the kind of reasonableness shown in the teacher's case to children, too.

Rule-breaking cannot be punished selectively. But due process should be certain and timely. There ought to be room for clemency and a sense of proportion in punishment. A school system's authority does not suffer when it shows mercy at appropriate times. Quite the contrary.

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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