Expulsion case seems to be more complex

March 11, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

FREDERICK - This was supposed to be a simple tale: two students at a Catholic school are found in the hallway doing something. Exactly what they were doing is in dispute, but all parties agree it was something they shouldn't have been doing.

The way the story originally went, the students - one a player on the school's nationally No. 1 ranked basketball team and the son of an NBA basketball player and the other the daughter of journalist who works in the great Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia media vortex - had their drawers down and were about "to get busy," as the less elegant saying goes.

The headmaster of the school - St. John's Literary Institution at Prospect Hall - gave both students the option of either withdrawing or being expelled. The students refused to withdraw. Thomas Peri, the headmaster, expelled them both. Their parents hired lawyers who sought and got a temporary injunction. A judge ordered the school to readmit the students pending a hearing on the injunction. And so the lawyers for both parties gathered Monday in Frederick to plead their cases. Fred Cooke, a Washington lawyer, said his clients were kissing and tightly embracing but doing nothing more than that. The expulsion punishment, he claimed, was excessive.

"[St. John's] student handbook does not say a small offense can be escalated into a large offense," Cooke argued. "A public display of affection is a detention offense, not an expulsion offense. We have never argued that the conduct engaged in by my clients does not merit censure. But the punishment does not fit the crime."

Cooke then charged that there was a pattern of racial disparity in discipline rampant at St. John's. Cooke assured the court that, if given the opportunity, he would prove that black students get harsher punishments than white students.

David Grove, a Frederick lawyer representing St. John's and Peri, disputed the discrimination charge. He noted nine instances of students leaving or being expelled for disciplinary reasons in the two years Peri has been headmaster. Three of them are black - including the two Cooke represented - and six are white.

"We're not seeing a discriminatory practice here," Grove said. Then he got to the heart of the St. John's case.

"This is about the right to police ourselves," Grove said. "It's about the ability to run our school in the way we deem appropriate. This is not a public school. It's a Catholic school. The state should stay out of our right to say, 'We are a Catholic school. We do have morals.' "

So the case, as previously indicated, was a bit more complex than originally reported. It was more than two students who were caught in the hall and then their parents making a spurious charge of racial discrimination. Grove seemed to have refuted the discrimination charge when a tall, black woman seated next to me offered her opinion.

"This all stems from what happened back in October," she whispered.

"October?" I asked. The woman, who identified herself as Karen Conley, elaborated. In October one of the white girls at the school accused a black basketball player of exposing himself to her. Peri, Conley claimed, took the girl's word and was ready to expel the boy. The boy denied the charge, took a polygraph test and passed. The girl refused to take the polygraph test. The boy wasn't expelled, but Conley said Peri allegedly told the school's basketball coach that the next basketball player involved in a disciplinary incident would be expelled.

Conley and the girl's mother - who will remain unidentified so her daughter can remain so - both expressed their uneasy feeling that Peri's problem is not with basketball players, but with blacks. Peri refused to talk about the October incident, saying it's unrelated to this one and he would under no circumstances discuss a student's disciplinary record. Grove said Peri "categorically denies" making the statement to the basketball coach.

The mother of the girl ordered expelled went to court, she said, not because she believes her daughter did nothing wrong but that the punishment was too harsh and the reputations of both students have been damaged.

"This isn't one of those frivolous instances," she said. "I'm not a litigious person. I'm saying I would have expected and insisted on punishment. There is no franchise St. John's has on morality. Any implication that these are lowdown, immoral, amoral children is a lie. I don't want them sullied any longer."

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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