Eighteen black students who had been suspended from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School over the past week for allegedly breaking into lockers were allowed to return to school yesterday. Many of them came back with their parents who charged the suspensions were based on hearsay evidence and racism.
"A series of lockers are broken into and our children are automatically assumed to be breaking into them," said one of the parents. "There's no evidence whatsoever."
School administrators, including Montgomery County superintendent Edward Andrews, refused to discuss the nature of the evidence that prompted the suspensions of the 18 blacks, most of whom live in a low-income housing project in Silver Spring and are bused to B-CC for special education programs.
Stealing has been a persistent, expensive problem at the high school. School officials say that nearly 200 incidents of theft have occurred since September, resulting in a loss of property totalling about $6,000.
"Lots of down jackets, tapes and money have been missing," said one student. "It's mostly the white rich kids who have this stuff and they're the ones who get ripped off."
According the students and other sources at the school, the incident that led to the suspensions occurred last Friday, when four students allegedly were seen breaking into at least one locker that did not belong to them. The four students were suspended for five days.
One of those students, a 15-year-old girl, said yesterday that assistant principal Randolph Tootle called her into his office and "told me that there had been $6,000 worth of stuff stolen and that I'd get in a lot less trouble if I'd tell him the names of some other kids who had been stealing."
The girl said that she did not give him any names. But many of the 14 additional students who were later suspended say that Tootle suspended them because their names were given to him by other students in trouble for breaking into lockers.
"Everyone gave the names of everyone else," said a 15-year-old boy who received a three-day suspension. "Dr. Tootle told me that if I gave him some names, he'd see about getting rid of some of my detention marks. Sure people are going to give names. But that don't mean they did anything." s
Other students at the high school questioned whether the suspended students actually had been stealing from lockers. "I don't know what the evidence was, and I do know that while they were suspended some people had stuff ripped off," said Student Government President Lisa Chertkov.
The parents who met with superintendent Andrews yesterday also complained that school officials did not follow county regulations when they suspended the students.
"The suspensions were illegal because no one called us parents and some of the children didn't even get written suspension notices," one parent told Andrews, who listened with his head bowed.
According to Maryland public school law, parents must be "notified promptly" in all cases of suspension.
Andrews, who spoke calmly during the discussion, said that he would conduct hearings next week with the students, their parents and school administrators to determine whether there had been good evidence against the students and whether the formal suspension procedures had been followed.
"If you have been accused unfairly, I will wipe out the suspension from your record," Andrews said. "If the evidence shows that you are guilty, I will uphold the disciplinary action that has taken place.
"I want fairness, due process, and if the process is a flawed process, you will not be penalized."