A Prince George's County judge yesterday upheld the county's tough school discipline policy that resulted in the expulsion last spring of a 13-year-old student for carrying a Swiss Army-type knife to school.
While acknowledging that the regulation was harsh, Circuit Court Judge Jacob S. Levin said that the Board of Education should be the final forum for appeal in such disputes. If the policy is wrong, he said, "the voters are going to have to get a new Board of Education to change the regulations."
This was the first time the policy -- in effect for two years and the Washington area's most severe -- had received a full hearing in court.
Christine Miller, the student's mother, said yesterday after the ruling that she doesn't care if her son, who can re-enroll in January, ever returns to school. "I don't think a high school diploma means anything anymore," she said.
Burleigh Odum, now 14, said his troubles began April 13 when the knife, which he had used earlier at home to sharpen pencils, fell out of his jacket pocket as he was walking to his homeroom at Gwynn Park Middle School shortly before 8 a.m. Two students saw the knife and reported it to a teacher, who contacted the vice principal.
Gwynn Park Principal Ralph Corrado recommended Burleigh be expelled and on May 26, Clark A. Estep, executive assistant to the superintendent, upheld that recommendation.
The Board of Education concurred with Estep's decision after a hearing on Aug. 23.
By simply having the knife, Burleigh, a slim brown-haired youth who says his favorite subject in school is mathematics, violated the school board's Code of Student Conduct.
According to that code, any student in grade seven through 12 who carries, uses or threatens to use "any weapon as an instrument capable of inflicting bodily injury" must be expelled by the superintendent of schools.
"For a very small group of students, this is a very strict policy," said school spokesman Brian J. Porter. "But for a vast majority of students who come to school without a weapon of any kind, this is not strict at all."
Last year, 179 students were expelled from Prince George's County public schools. Of those expulsions, 113 were for possession of weapons, including Burleigh and two other students from Gwynn Park.
Sixty-two students were expelled for possession of alcohol or drugs and four for physical attacks on teachers or other students.
Estep said there have been no expulsions from county schools so far this school year.
Christine Miller, 33, said that the school board's decision to expel her son is unfair.
"They're just trying to use it as an example," she said.
Burleigh, who has spent his time out of school sitting at home or working in nearby tobacco fields, said he would like someday to be a doctor or a lawyer and to that end, he plans to return to school. But he worries he may not be able to earn enough credits to graduate with his class.
Gwynn Park guidance counselor Joyce Tuccinardi has a deeper concern. She said in court papers she has observed that "students who are behind their age group in school are more likely to drop out of school."
Tuccinardi wouldn't discuss Burleigh's case yesterday, but she did say that in a rural district, students who camp and fish often carry knives similar to Burleigh's for innocent reasons.
Burleigh was carrying a black pocketknife with a 2 5/8-inch blade and a bottle opener, fish scaler and screwdriver that fold into the handle.
James J. Lombardi, attorney for the Millers and their son, argued that the school board refused to use a "rule of reason" in determining whether the knife was a weapon.
"My daughter used to bring an apple paring knife to school in her lunch box," Lombardi told Levin. "The mere fact that you have this knife shouldn't be enough."
School board attorney Andrew Nussbaum said the strict policy is necessary in order to "maintain safe schools.