Sunday, April 29, 2012

Maryland school's zero-tolerance policy reversed: safety requires honesty and common sense from administrators and board members

See all posts re zero tolerance.

The safety issue requires officials to use a little common sense. They should never play politics with this issue, as was done in my school district, Chula Vista Elementary School District, during its Libia Gil-Lowell Billings years with board members Pam Smith, Larry Cunningham, Bertha Lopez, Patrick Judd and Cheryl Cox. These officials made a mockery of school safety.

In Maryland, a rare reversal of suspensions for two lacrosse players
By Donna St. George
Washington Post
April 28, 2012

The search was a surprise. The high school lacrosse team in Easton, Md., had boarded its bus when the principal and other administrators arrived, announcing that gear bags would be checked. A tip had come in about athletes carrying alcohol.

Near the front of the bus, Graham Dennis, then a 17-year-old junior, asked whether he should remove the pocketknife he always used to cut and tighten strings on his lacrosse stick. It was tucked inside his oversized duffel bag, along with cleats, pads, socks, duct tape and medical supplies.

That question — to which he says he gave little thought — set off a year-long odyssey in school discipline that ended this month with a rare outcome: The state stepped in and reversed a local school board’s decision on student punishment.

In a unanimous ruling, the Maryland State Board of Education expunged the disciplinary records of two lacrosse players suspended from school after the search in April 2011.

The state board also raised questions about a decision to call the police on Dennis, who was led away in handcuffs for having two small knives. His teammate Casey Edsall, also a 17-year-old junior, was suspended for having a lighter, used to seal the frayed ends of strings. School officials deemed it an explosive device, his family said.

“This case is about context and about the appropriate exercise of discretion,” the state board said in its ruling — stressing that knives and lighters do not belong on campus but that Talbot County school officials went beyond their own rules in punishing the students.

It was a blow to the get-tough culture of zero tolerance that has taken hold in U.S. schools in the past 20 years. And for Maryland, it is another moment in the discipline spotlight. In February, the state board drew wide notice for proposals to reduce suspensions and require districts to remedy racial disparities. A vote is expected within the next few months.

“What we’re seeing is that Maryland is stepping up in a leadership role and putting common sense back into discipline,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group.

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the decision culminated an often-frustrating quest for the two families involved. Along the way, they received crucial support from the lacrosse team’s assistant coach, who is also commander of the homicide unit of the Maryland State Police.

But the case came as both players were on the brink of college applications, which ask about disciplinary history. One teenager did not apply to certain universities, thinking the offense would take him out of the running. The other wrote detailed explanations and hoped for the best.

“It kind of destroys your reputation,” Dennis said. “People think there is more to the story than what you’re saying.”

...In written arguments, the school officials had agreed that the knives were meant for repairing lacrosse equipment but said their presence posed a danger to students and staff members...

“We consider bringing a knife to school one of the most serious offenses that a student can commit,” the officials said. The case reflects continuing tension about tough rules intended to keep students safe. Critics say they often go too far and don’t make schools safer. Supporters say that strong lines need to be drawn and that too much discretion can lead to preferential treatment.

The school system in Talbot County, with 4,500 students and a long stretch of Maryland shoreline, does not have policies that call for zero tolerance. Its rules give leeway to first offenders, allow for discretion by educators and see suspension as a last resort.

Both teenagers say the principal at first told them not to worry, that the issue would be addressed at school the next day. Bring home a win, Dennis recalled Principal David Stofa saying after the search.

Then, according to the families, a school system administrator intervened.

Dennis and Edsall were asked to step off the bus. Parents were summoned. Dennis was suspended 10 days, with a recommendation for expulsion, and Edsall was suspended one day. A police officer drove Dennis to the station, where he was fingerprinted and booked for possession of a deadly weapon.

Laura Dennis arrived at Easton High on April 13, 2011, confused about why her son was in trouble. He always carried tools to fix his stick. It did not make sense, she thought.

“I’m sorry,” she recalled a school administrator telling her, as the administrator explained that Graham had to be suspended. There was no choice.

“I’m sorry,” she recalled a police officer telling her, as the officer explained that he had been asked by an administrator to make the arrest.

Laura Dennis spent the first of many nights reading everything she could find on the Internet about school discipline and the code of conduct in Talbot County. A few days later, she pressed the issue at her son’s hearing: Where was zero tolerance written into the code of conduct? Why couldn’t she find it?

The administrator left the room, she said, and returned to say that it was not a policy — only a practice — so it did not have to be written down. Her son missed two weeks of school, three lacrosse games and a tournament. He grappled with uncertainty about whether he would be expelled or sent to an alternative learning center. He faced criminal charges, which his family said took a month, a lawyer and some strategizing to be dismissed.

“It affected his outlook on absolutely everything,” Laura Dennis said. He told his parents that he would drop out if he were moved from Easton High School.

“I questioned who I was,” Graham Dennis recalled. He felt labeled as a criminal, he said — and ripped away from his team and school. “That was my lowest point.”

Joe Gamble, the assistant lacrosse coach, had stepped up quickly to make the players’ case. Gamble, the state police homicide commander, was in the bus the day of the search, and his statement was quoted in the state school board’s 12-page opinion...

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