Howard's school board votes to uphold suspension of student in alcohol case

He was accused of giving vodka to classmate on bus

December 07, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Board of Education has upheld the 45-day suspension of a former Folly Quarter Middle School pupil, who was accused of giving alcohol to another student during a bus ride to school in the spring, according to its decision released yesterday.

Philip Ashtianie, a freshman at River Hill High School, must serve the remaining 20 days of his suspension, starting today.

He has also been banned from participating in extracurricular activities for the rest of this semester, as called for in the school system's drug and alcohol policy. Philip's punishment had been delayed pending the appeal.

"We're very disappointed, and obviously, this board can't see truth right in front of them," said Philip's mother, Susan Ashtianie.

Allen Dyer, Philip's attorney, said he plans to file an immediate appeal to the state Board of Education and a request for reconsideration to the Howard school board.

In a 4-1 written decision made public by Dyer, the school board rejected a hearing examiner's recommendation that evidence did not support Philip's 45-day suspension. Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, dissented.

"The hearing officer was just another hearer of the facts and came down with a different opinion," said James P. O'Donnell, the board's vice chairman. "As you could tell, four of us thought that the evidence really was on the administration's side, and Mrs. Watson thought it wasn't sufficient."

The school board weighed the credibility of Philip, his accuser, known as "Student A," and other people and determined that the evidence supporting Philip's version of events was less credible than those supporting the school administration's side.

Student A, then an eighth-grader at Folly Quarter Middle, accused Philip of giving him a water bottle filled with vodka during a bus ride to school in May. But Student A later recanted his allegation, then stuck by his original version of events.

Philip was suspended for 10 days, and the investigation was referred to Craig Cummings, coordinator of alternative education programs, who was the superintendent's designee in the case. Cummings extended Philip's suspension to 45 days and assigned him to evening school.

Philip appealed his punishment in a rare public process by waiving his confidentiality rights. The school board heard oral arguments on the case Nov. 29

In her dissent, Watson wrote that "once Student A recanted, however, I believe the decision was no longer supported by a preponderance of the evidence."

The other four board members, however, gave considerable weight to a statement written by "Student C," who described in detail what she observed on the bus, which corroborated Student A's original version of events.

The school board also cast doubt on Philip's credibility, saying, "He obviously has a motive to lie about his involvement," according to the decision.

"[Student C] had no reason to testify on either on Student A or Mr. Ashtianie's behalf," O'Donnell said in an interview yesterday. "It was a credibility issue. She established for us that Student A was more credible than Mr. Ashtianie."

But the hearing examiner was not convinced of Student C's written statement, instead, relying on direct testimony given by Philip at a public hearing in August. Dyer said the school board made a mistake by overruling the hearing examiner's recommendations.

"There was hearsay testimony which would not have been admitted in the court of law because it's inherently unreliable," Dyer said of Student C's statement. "That unreliable evidence is what the board is relying on."

Mark Blom, the school system's general counsel representing the superintendent, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

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