After a Southern Senior High School honor student was suspended for the rest of his senior year for carrying a penknife on his key chain, The Sun asked school board members and others involved in education their opinion of the county school system's weapons policy.
Generally, they saw a need to hasten the appeal process. And although they agreed that weapons should be kept out of school, they disagreed over whether a progressive discipline policy is better than one that calls for automatic long-term suspension or expulsion for the slightest offense.
Last week, 70 Southern High students descended on the county school board to protest what they considered a heavy-handed policy that resulted in John Destry, 18, being suspended for the rest of his senior year because of the penknife.
The rules ban students from possessing weapons on school grounds and at school-sponsored events. In elementary schools, principals may recommend the length of a suspension and conditions for re-admission to school for violators. In the upper grades, the student must be suspended for a semester or expelled. A student found in possession of a gun is expelled for one year.
Disciplinary actions may be appealed to the school board, a process that takes at least two months.
The Sun invites readers to send their opinions in Letters to the Editor. Mail them to The Sun for Anne Arundel, 8131 Ritchie Highway, Pasadena 21122.
Donald M. Smith
Smith, administrator of the Association of Educational Leaders, the school administrators union, says principals would prefer more leeway and a faster appeals process.
"When you deal with kids, you always want to have an escape clause somewhere. It's a tough, tough call when something happens with this policy."
He added: "There are kids who just plain forget, really. And kids who say. 'It was in my coat pocket and I forgot,' all kinds of stuff like that. If a kid brings a knife to school and you ask him about it, you think he is going to tell you, 'Oh, yeah, I brought it to stab Freddie'?"
Smith also worried about a teen's ability to manage his anger.
"My point is that when you have a kid who has something like that and has no intention of using it, and then gets angry over something and uses it. Or if it is stolen."
"I think you'd like to be able to weigh the matter maybe get a second opinion. Maybe instead you could have a few days' suspension and bring the kid and his parents back in with a contract not to violate the policy or you're gone.
"When I was a principal, I always had in the back of my mind, this could be my son or my daughter and how would I want somebody to handle this.
"In self-defense, school systems try to make policies that are suit-proof -- if A, then B -- and you do that for everybody. The unfortunate part of that is you lose the human element.
"One of the prime motivators for [these policies] is that there is no judgment call for suspending kid A who happens to be black or not suspending kid A who is black."
"They need to streamline that [appeals] process. It may mean they need to have somebody else hear the appeals."
Carlesa R. Finney
Finney, an at-large member of the school board, fretted that school officials are advised by lawyers who understand the most minute details of the policy, many parents and students, on the other hand, have no advocates, nor do they know they can bring one with them to any meeting with school officials.
But the policy and regulations are sound, she says.
"It's good, it's solid, it's staying. I think we need to brush up on some of the communication to students and parents, number one on the policy and number two on the process."
At Finney's suggestion, the board last week asked school officials and lawyers to draft an explanation to parents of their rights in the suspension / expulsion and appeals process.
"If I change anything, it is ways to manage the policy, the time for appeal. But leave your guns and knives and whatever else at home.
"The only way you can change [the policy] is to change the appeals process. The time is too long. Maybe we should have students, members of the community to just hear student appeals. I don't know, that is off the top of my head. But I am open to suggestions.
"The message we want to send is no weapons at school. That's it.
"When there is a true mistake, there are two things a student can do. They can take it to the principal and say. 'Can you hold this for me?' and pick it up when you leave, and they can appeal. And they can have 50 or 60 students come with them.
Steven H. White Jr.
Steven, a student member of the school board and a senior at Meade High School, says there are difficult issues to weigh, among them the possibility that under a different policy, all students would not be treated equally.
"I still haven't come up with a firm stand on it. I think it is something we probably do need to look into. There are a lot of valid points on both sides. The problem that comes in with this going against the zero-tolerance policy is if you set one tone for straight-A students and one for ones who are not, then you have a different standard for them.
"The time [for appeals] is a point of major concern for all board members.
"I often think of myself, what if that was me? It's hard stuff, really hard stuff.
"At the heart of the whole zero tolerance is that sometimes it is very clear to the upholders what the intent was and sometimes xTC not. There is always the possibility of a double-standard.
"When you have a weapon like that, it is easier to use it. You can't use a weapon you don't have.
"CRASC [the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils, countywide student government] will be looking into it, maybe at the meeting in February. There were definitely a lot of issues raised by the students [Wednesday]. It's definitely hot among the students."
Bury, school board member from Legislative District 31, says that although she has mixed feelings about certain circumstances, the policy needs to remain clear, strong and uniform.
"Personally, I don't think weapons have any place in school. It is if the weapon is there, that's it.
"I think they really need to get the message that they can't bring them in school.
"I really do support the way we have been going with the weapons policy, I would not propose any real changes."
Students "have the right to come back [with an appeal to the board].
"The intent is not the question."
Joseph H. Foster
Foster, president of the school board from Legislative District 32, says the rules are clear but wants to speed the appeals process and wants to see a year-end evaluation.
"I think that we implemented a policy -- it was appropriate at that time and it was appropriate at this time. I think it is working. We will have to do an analysis at the end of the year to see if any modifications have to be made, to see if there are any situations that forced something to happen that was unfair or created a major hardship.
"Most of the issues that I am concerned with are more procedural than policy. It now takes at least two months [for an appeal]. I don't know what is humanly possible, given the circumstances, but at the very least it needs to be cut in half.
"But more than that, we need to know that there is a very thorough investigation, and that all of the facts are being analyzed up front. I think that they [investigators and administrators] are doing it, but I don't think that the parents fully understand what is going on at that point in time. Parents, people doing the investigation need to know that if there is any information that needs to be brought out, this is the time to do it. There needs to be a thorough airing of the situation.
"If you want to create an environment where you have no weapons, then you have to take this kind of action."
Fox, chairman of the countywide Citizens Advisory Committee, was on the committee that drafted the Student Code of Conduct. He says parents overwhelmingly support the policy.
"Actually, I think it's a good one. Unfortunately, in every regulation there is a high side and a low side. It is unfortunate that we are getting a lot of publicity on the low side.
"As a group, we like it. At the last CAC countywide meeting, we gave a vote of encouragement to the board that they have these kinds of rules and they are sticking to it. It was unanimous.
"There has been too much flexibility on the rules and regulations. In some cases it has been a little bit out of hand. Hopefully, it will level out. I think right now everyone is trying to say let's stick to the letter."
"The parents have to know that it is uniform throughout, if they move to another part of the county. That's what parents were looking for -- uniformity.
"As a CAC, what we are working on is trying to get parents to realize these things. We did say we thought it would be good to get a parent's signature. [Students are asked to sign indicating they understand the rules.]
"We really pushed as a parents group, that we wanted in-school suspensions. Even if they are appealing, sometimes the kids are out in the streets happy.
"But we as a parent group don't want them ever out in the street. We want them in school."
Pub Date: 2/10/97