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Suspensions Spur Debate Over Discipline Codes

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A 13-year-old honors student from Fairborn, Ohio, was suspended for nine days for possession of Midol tablets in class. A 7th grader was ousted for one day from her suburban Houston school for carrying a bottle of Advil in her backpack. And a 1st grade boy in North Carolina was given a one-day, in-school suspension for kissing a 6-year-old girl on the cheek.

This recent string of widely publicized suspensions has raised questions about whether school officials are overreacting in the enforcement of policies designed to protect their students.

Fear of lawsuits and community pressure has spurred many schools in recent years to follow district codes on drugs, weapons, and sexual harassment to the letter. But some observers say the rigidity undermines a school's authority by making it look ridiculous.

"We have to know when to keep a kid after school for 10 minutes and when to call out the FBI," said Lily Eskelsen, a 6th grade teacher in the Granite school district outside Salt Lake City. School leaders must be given more leeway to issue punishments, Ms. Eskelsen argued. "We have to apply some common sense.''

Many administrators, however, maintain that their strict adherence to school guidelines is simply a response to parental and societal concerns about the rising rates of violence and drug use among young people.

The number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes in the United States has shot up 47 percent in the past five years, according to a 1995 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

And illicit-drug use among 12- to 17-year-olds has doubled since 1992, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported last month.

"There is a heightened sensitivity to ensure that everyone in the school is safe and sober," said Robert Mahaffey, a spokesman for the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals. "The community expects it," he said.

From LSD to Listerine

In the past two years, every state has adopted a law mandating a one-year expulsion of any student who brings a gun to school. The federal gun-free-schools law required states to pass a zero-tolerance policy by last fall or risk losing federal aid.

But for several years before, districts had been passing policies banning far more than guns, knives, and illegal substances.

"The things you can't do on campus are increasing," said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. Nun-chucks, nightsticks, box cutters, screwdrivers, spray paint, and toy guns are increasingly off limits in schools, Mr. Stephens said.

Two years ago, for instance, a 2nd grader in a Boston school caught a three-day suspension for playing with a squirt gun on a school bus.

Some districts even consider cough syrup, hair spray, and breath fresheners contraband.

A Loudoun County, Va., high school senior was given a 10-day suspension last year for taking a swig of Cool Mint Listerine in class. The mouthwash, which contains 22 percent alcohol, violated a district rule banning any liquid that contained alcohol.

But all these policies are devised to protect students from harm, said Pam Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Humble school district outside Houston. The district made national headlines earlier this month when officials suspended a 7th grader for bringing Advil, a nonprescription painkiller, to school.

With the exception of cough drops, students in the 23,000-student district must take all medications in the presence of a school official and only with a parent's permission.

"Students can have bad reactions even to over-the-counter drugs, and that can be fatal," Ms. Anderson said.

Beyond regulating student drug use and weapons possession, an increasing number of districts are enacting policies intended to stop sexual harassment between students. Following the release of a 1993 survey indicating that four out of five students in grades 8-11 had been harassed at school, many districts instituted policies delineating what is inappropriate and offensive behavior between schoolchildren.

While parents applaud the intent of these rules, many say they need to be applied with care.

Jackie Prevette, whose 6-year-old son, Johnathan, was suspended from his Lexington, N.C., school this month for kissing a classmate, argued that the district went too far in an attempt to advance a politically correct agenda.

"To be called a sexual harasser for an innocent kiss on the cheek is absurd," Ms. Prevette said.

Silly or Sued

Even though many administrators agree that some of these cases are silly, they still contend that it's better to risk an embarrassing news story than undergo expensive litigation.

If a student takes a single nonprescription pain reliever and suffers serious side effects, for instance, the district could be held liable, administrators warn.

In the past few years, schools have become the target of lawsuits that would have been thought implausible not long ago. For example, districts are being sued by parents who claim schools failed to protect their children from student-to-student sexual harassment. So far, only a handful of cases have reached a jury, and the awards generally have been modest. ("In Harassment Suits, a New Era Emerges," Sept. 25, 1996, and "Supreme Court Declines To Accept Student Sexual-Harassment Case," Oct. 16, 1996.)

But a California jury, in a case brought under state law, this month awarded $500,000 to the family of a girl in the Antioch district who said she was subjected to almost daily harassment during the course of a school year.

Wary of such litigation, many education groups and teachers' unions have begun to maintain legal-assistance funds to help school employees with legal fees.

"Principals think it's a lot better to be ridiculed for overreacting than to be hauled into court and sued," said Ted Greenleaf, a spokesman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va. "If a principal makes ad hoc decisions, they can become liable later on."

'Darned If You Do'

But as the most recent suspension cases show, even the strictest adherence to school rules may not be a buffer against legal action.

Kimberly Smartt, the 14-year-old student who was suspended for 13 days this month after giving Midol, a nonprescription medication to relieve menstrual symptoms, to a classmate, has filed a lawsuit against the Fairborn, Ohio, schools to clear her record. The suit alleges that Ms. Smartt was given a harsher punishment than her classmate--who received a nine-day suspension--because she is black. The district has denied the charge, asserting that distribution of a drug is a more serious offense than possession.

In the North Carolina kissing case, Ms. Prevette has hired a lawyer and recently gave the Lexington schools an ultimatum: She'll sue unless they expunge her son's record and issue "appropriate" guidelines on the implementation of sexual-harassment rules.

School officials defended their policy in news reports earlier this month, but have not commented on the threat of legal action. They have, however, amended their policy to take a student's age, prior conduct, and intent into account.

Many educators across the nation, meanwhile, have responded to such incidents with exasperation. Some administrators say they are blamed whether they follow the rules or break them.

"We are darned if we do and darned if we don't," said Fred Brown, a principal at the Boyertown (Pa.) elementary school. "Soon we won't be able to do anything," he said.

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