A test of safety, fairness

Schools have raised bar for mandatory expulsion but say punishment still applies

November 16, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

The threatening text messages started in the summer, before school even began.

By the time classes started at Annapolis High School this year, Lashon Patterson's daughter was so traumatized that each morning she begged, almost always in tears, to ditch school.

"You've got all of annapolis after you," says one of the text messages. "All the skaters hate you. All of a-high hates you. ... I'm going to split you in the [expletive] jaw and when you're on the ground. I'm going to kick you in the ribs until the cops come and arrest me."

Despite efforts by the 15-year-old girl's parents and school officials, she was assaulted in school about two months later after classes.

Schoolyard bullies - and how school systems deal with their threats - are an age-old problem. In the past decade, schools across the country have become increasingly aggressive in dealing with threats of violence, instituting zero-tolerance policies after two Colorado high school students went on a deadly shooting rampage inside Columbine High School.

But just as protecting students from violence is paramount, school systems are trying new strategies and recycling old ones to deal with disciplinary issues, such as employing police officers at schools, using peer mediation and conflict resolution, and raising the bar for behavior that constitutes severe disciplinary measures.

The Anne Arundel County school system, in an effort to decrease suspensions and expulsions and bring greater parity along racial and economic lines, established stricter guidelines two years ago for implementing certain disciplinary measures.

The school system has narrowed the definition of what constitutes a mandatory expulsion recommendation to four instances: distribution of drugs, possession of a firearm, use of a weapon and a serious physical attack, according to Leon Washington, the director of safe and orderly schools.

Bob Mosier, a school department spokesman, said despite those efforts, the school department is vigorous in punishing perpetrators. "These actions should be in no way construed that we're leaving people in buildings where they can potentially cause harm to others in a volatile situation," Mosier said.

"If we have a situation where there's a clear danger to a student and we have a student we feel is responsible for that danger, do we not discipline that student just to keep those numbers down? Absolutely not. That is absolutely not the case."

Just a week into the school year, the Annapolis High School teenager was already trying to get out of school. Patterson, the girl's mother, asked that her daughter not be identified to protect her privacy and to prevent her from being teased or bullied at her new school. On Sept. 3 at 9:12 a.m., she texted her father: "Dad, I might need you to come get me. I can't deal with this. I'm about to break down."

According to a doctor's note dated Sept. 11, 2008, the teen was suffering from "anxiety/stress related to school."

"She is very disturbed, not sleeping or eating well, missing her lunch period at school," Dr. Ram Rastogi wrote. "She is depressed and separating herself from school and classmates."

Patterson went to court in early September and sought successfully a "peace order," akin to a restraining order, to keep the student away from her daughter. It expires in March. Still, he continued to harass her.

The alleged author of the text, a fellow student at Annapolis High, eventually followed through with his threats of violence toward the 10th-grade girl, choking her and punching her in the face in a stairwell of the building after her fourth-period English class on Oct. 28 a few minutes after the school's 2:05 p.m. dismissal time, according to the girl, her parents and a court summons.

The girl called her mother and sought medical help at the nurse's station, but when her mother arrived and wanted to call the police, she was told to make the call from her home.

"The school told me to go home and call," Patterson said. "Isn't that crazy? I said, 'This happened on school property. Shouldn't we call the police?' They stated it was the end of the school day, and there was nothing they could do."

Washington, the director of safe and orderly schools, said Annapolis High as well as most of the county's other high schools have school resources officers on site who would assist in such a situation. "If something like that occurs, the SRO would be involved," he said. "Typically, if a physical attack occurred, the school would contact the police."

The assault, which left the 15-year-old girl's nose bloodied and her fear sky-high, turned the tide in their dealings with the school department, her parents say.

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