School punishment doesn't pass constitutional muster

August 22, 1999|By Gregory Kane

TREMAINE LYLE hasn't been to school since Feb. 22. Oh, there were those summer school classes he took. But from late February to June, when regular school was in session, Lyle wasn't there. And it's not because he doesn't want to go.

It was on Feb. 22 that Tremaine was in Patterson High School's cafeteria and saw a buddy named Darrell quarreling with his girlfriend. Darrell, according to a summary of an administrative hearing conducted by a school system official, shoved the girl, Michelle, in the chest and pushed her down.

Another student, Gary -- apparently out to prove that chivalry isn't dead, just taking a mandatory eight-count -- started a fight with Darrell. Soon Gary had Darrell -- who was wearing a leg cast because of torn knee cartilage -- sprawled on a table. Tremaine said he saw Gary hit Darrell several times in the face. Tremaine, believing Darrell couldn't defend himself, said he grabbed Gary in an effort to pull him off Darrell and break up the fight.

Kevin Magrogan, who is Tremaine's accounting teacher, and Patterson Assistant Principal Joseph Sanzone didn't see it that way. They believed Tremaine hit Gary. Patterson's principal suspended Tremaine. Then those characters at North Avenue school headquarters got in on the act. In the last six months, they've done more to prevent Tremaine's education than a mess of Jim Crow laws.

The Office of Attendance and Suspension Services recommended that Tremaine's suspension be continued and that he be transferred to Southern High School. Schools CEO Robert Booker agreed with the recommendation.

Shelly Smith, Lyle's mother, a corrections officer at the city's central booking center, decided to get a lawyer and fight this nonsense. An administrative hearing was held on March 16. Magrogan and Sanzone testified that Tremaine hit Gary. But Gary, in a statement the school system introduced as evidence, wrote that "Tremaine Lyles push me while me and the boy was fighting."

Tremaine submitted a notarized statement from Michelle, Darrell's girlfriend, as his evidence. She wrote: "On 2-22-99 I had got into a fight with my boyfriend and my boyfriend pushed me on the floor so that's when the boy Gary had got in to it and him and Darrell had started to fight. Then that's when I saw Tremaine try to [break] it up."

Benjamin Brown, a school system hearing officer who conducted the administration hearing, ruled that the evidence was not conclusive to sustain the charge that Tremaine was fighting on Feb. 22. He recommended that Booker rescind Tremaine's suspension and transfer.

The story could have ended there -- with Tremaine returning to Patterson, continuing his studies and resuming his position as quarterback on the football team -- but that would have been too easy.

Instead, school officials filed an exception to Brown's ruling -- and well past the deadline for filing it, they've admitted. On April 25, Shelly Smith received a letter saying the school board had reversed Brown's ruling. Smith said she asked why and was told that these school board members didn't have to tell her. Neither did they tell her why school officials get to break the rules while students get punished for breaking them.

Interesting, isn't it, how the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy doesn't apply to high school students? Brown, in his "conclusions of law," essentially found Tremaine innocent of the charges: "fighting in cafeteria causing a near riotous situation." School officials basically appealed his acquittal. The next civics lesson for Patterson students should be that out in the real world, this would be considered an outrage.

Vanessa C. Pyatt, a spokeswoman for the school system, said Booker overturned Brown's recommendation and the board upheld him. Pyatt said she didn't know why Booker overturned Brown's decision but said apparently the school chief felt Tremaine was fighting.

"This altercation did not involve Mr. Lyle," Pyatt said. "He injected himself into the fight." Tremaine's punishment -- expulsion from Patterson -- "was consistent with the action taken against the other students," Pyatt said. Gary and Darrell were also booted from Patterson.

Pyatt said Tremaine should attend Southern until the matter is resolved. Smith said there's no way her son is going to Southern.

Smith has challenged the tater-head approach to discipline in city public schools. If Tremaine is the unrepentant thug school officials have made him out to be, he should be tossed out of the system entirely. Why the dickens does Booker think Southern's principal wants him? What, exactly, is the policy here? Let's send him to Southern, where we send all the hoods?

Mind you, Tremaine's discipline record shows only two minor incidents. Three of his teachers, Brown said, "recognize Tremaine's ability and potential." This sounds like a kid who should have been given the benefit of both a doubt and a second chance. Instead school officials have placed an uncaring foot squarely in the lad's derriere.

They had best consider carefully what they've done. Tremaine's mom put it best.

"I'm a corrections officer," Smith cautioned. "I see the product of kids thrown to the side."

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