Principals may suspend students suspected or charged wit crimes off school property if the principal believes the students' actions will have a harmful effect on other students, the school board decided recently.
John M. Mead, director of pupil services, said students won't be suspended automatically if they are arrested or get in trouble off-campus. "The key issue is the welfare of the general body of the students," he said.
The policy, approved by a 6-1 vote Monday, formalizes current practice, he said. Principals are permitted to suspend for up to five days any student charged with or suspected of crimes off campus. The superintendent may expel the student or suspend the student for a longer term. Students may appeal the suspension or expulsion.
After the meeting, Stuart Jay Robinson, a Bel Air lawyer who has handled cases of students suspended or expelled from school, said it's unfair to make judgments on students before they're tried.
"You have to balance the safety of the environment vs. the student's action," he said.
"What happens if the student is never charged, if charges are dropped or if the student is found innocent? The damage has been done. Students, like anyone else, are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and they should only be removed from school if absolutely necessary."
Harford's policy resembles those of other school systems throughout the state. It pertains to students charged with or suspected of committing or attempting crimes, including murder, rape, assault with a deadly weapon, assault, robbery, extortion, arson and distribution or sale of drugs or alcohol.
Superintendent Ray R. Keech said the school system needed formal guidelines to deal with off-campus behavior that "clearly has enormous impact on the school environment." But he said the school system had to be careful not to overstep its bounds.
"The school system has to be extremely cautious in dealing with community matters that have no relation to the school," he said. "We are in the business of teaching reading, writing and %J counting. We should not be the policing agency for other issues."
Anne D. Sterling, school board president, cast the sole dissenting vote. She worried that students might accuse one another other falsely, and principals might suspend students on the basis of hearsay.
Michael J. Harris, the board's student representative, also cast his "honorary" vote against the policy. The student member's vote is symbolic, as it is excluded from the tally in board decisions.
He said the school system has no right to make judgments about a student's behavior off campus.
Recalling a student arrested at a drug raid, he said: "He wasn't doing anything. He was helping out a friend. Now that his name is in the paper, because he was arrested, does that mean he will be suspended? It's not the school system's place to step outside the school."