A record 57 students have been dismissed this fall from secondary schools in Prince George's County -- up from one for all of last year -- and some parents and school board members are beginning to have a few reservations about what county school officials call the toughest discipline policy in metropolitan Washington.
School administrators expected the rate of expulsions to decline as word spread among 58,000 secondary students that, for the first time, officials would expel students found in possession of drugs with intent to distribute, or weapons. But incidents leading to expulsions are continuing at about 25 per month.
The school board has had to spend an estimated 20 to 30 hours hearing and discussing 10 expulsion appeals, almost as many hours as all of their regularly scheduled meetings and work sessions to date combined.
The expelled students range from "habitual troublemakers to the student who for reasons of pure stupidity brings a knife to school because he or she thinks it's cool," said school spokesman Brian Porter.
Much to the surprise of some officials, "these include children of professionals, blue collar, white collar, wealthy and poor parents," he said.
"It was a surprise to a lot of people as to the really mixed variety of kids we have gotten," board member Doris Eugene confirmed. "Many times you have a stereotype of the kid who might be causing a problem."
The main complaint that parents have is that the present policy does not take into account a student's former record of behavior or his intent.
A University Park lawyer, who asked not to be identified, recently found this out after he presented 24 character witnesses in his son's defense before the school board during an appeal.
His 15-year-old son, a sophomore who had just transferred to Northwestern High School from private school, was playing basketball on the grounds of a University Park elementary school one Saturday when he discovered a four-inch switchblade knife, the father says. The son put the knife into a pocket of his father's heavy jean jacket, which he had borrowed.
On Nov. 9, since his own jacket was in the wash, his mother gave him the jean jacket to wear to school that day, his father said.
"He was standing in the lunch line," the father continued. "A boy who lives not far away asked him for a quarter. He stuck his hand in the pocket and pulled out the knife. They laughed about it for a minute. Then a teacher saw the knife and pulled him out of the lunch room."
Six days later, the family learned that principal Luther Fennell had recommended the boy, a high-testing but low-achieving student, be expelled. A hearing with school superintendent Edward J. Feeney was set for two weeks later.
After the hearing before Feeney, the superintendent "stood up, shook the boy's hand and gave us the impression he would be back in school soon," the father said. But the next week, a registered letter from Feeney said the boy had been expelled for possession of a switchblade. The family began to look for a private school.
"Obviously the parent got the wrong impression," said school spokesman Porter.
At the appeal hearing before the school board, the father, accustomed to defending criminal cases in private practice, tried to have the charges dropped on two technicalities, including the fact that the knife was broken. He then gave a lengthy summation, to no avail.
"Their hearing procedure is meaningless," the father said. "The appeal process is meaningless. They would have saved me a lot of grief if on Nov. 9 they simply told us, 'Your son may never come back to school.' "
The new policy, passed by the school board last August, urges Feeney to expel on first offense any student possessing drugs with intent to distribute it, or a weapon. Feeney has done so in about 86 percent of the cases.
Expulsion is also required on second offense for simple possession of drugs or alcohol, although a student so expelled may be considered for readmission to the schools after one semester and completion of an acceptable drug rehabilitation program.
A slight majority of the expulsions has been for weapons violations, often for knives that students claim to wear on their belts as apparel. No student has been caught with a gun or heroin, Porter said.
A. James Golato, the former 13-year board member who cosponsored the policy with current member Angelo Castelli, asked his colleagues before his term expired Dec. 6 to reconsider because he saw too many first offenders coming before the board to appeal their expulsions.
"It could be just an excuse, but if this kid has no record of ever doing anything wrong, shouldn't we give him the benefit of the doubt?" asked Golato, a conservative who gave up his school board seat after an unsuccessful campaign for the County Council.
Golato recalled the case of an Oxon Hill High School student who had never been in trouble before, as far as any school officials could remember. The youth, out of school one day with permission of his mother, visited another school on an errand, wearing a knife in a leather sheath on his belt.
The youth surrendered the knife to a teacher upon entering the school and retrieved it when he left. But later that day he went to an Oxon Hill football game with the knife still on his belt. He got caught and was expelled.
The board upheld that expulsion, as they have nine of the 10 appeals.
"The issue shouldn't be if this is a good child with a knife or a gun," said board member Bonnie Johns. "The issue is whether the kid has a knife or a gun."
Board member Castelli said he has little sympathy for the lengthy appeal hearings. "It's been dragging on because of all the hearts and flowers," he said. "One guy tried to go on and have the whole thing thrown out on a typographical error."
Castelli, a lawyer with the Justice Department, said that the board is planning to limit the number of character witnesses in the appeals to streamline the growing backlog of cases.
He stressed that expelled students, some of whom cannot afford private schooling, can reappeal to the board at any time following their expulsions.
"We are not unsympathetic, contrary to what some people think," Castelli said.
Nevertheless, board newcomer Paul Shelby, who was forced to disqualify himself from hearing an appeal last week because it involved the son of an associate of his, feels there should be more discretion in applying the rules. He predicted there will eventually be a change of heart on the board.
"We ought to look and see whether we are treating some people unfairly because we are treating them all the same," said Shelby, a Bowie lawyer.