Prince William County high school expulsions for drug-related offenses are more than twice what they were last year at this time, according to school officials.
But school administrators, counselors and teachers say they do not believe the increase in explusions means that drug use in the school is greater.
"The figures for this year don't necessarily mean that more kids are using drugs," Larson said. "It could simply mean that sometimes kids are caught in bunches."
Between September and the end of last month, the School Board held eight expulsion hearings and seven students were asked to leave. By February 1984 three students had been expelled, according to school spokesman Kristy Larson. The total for the calendar year was 16, she said.
Several School Board meetings since January have begun as much as three hours late because the board deals first with what it terms "student matters." The full board, Superintendent Richard Johnson and board attorney Joseph Dyer meet with students, parents and attorneys. According to Chairman Gerard Cleary, the board used to handle school expulsions after the regular meeting, but members found they were too tired to give the matter their full attention.
"This could be the most important decision we make about a kid's life," he said. "I feel it's one of the most important decisions we make as a board. We are dealing with a kid's future. I don't like to rush these hearings."
Officials say that most hearings result in expulsions because by the time the matter gets to the board level, the evidence generally is strong. The last expulsion took less than 15 minutes; according to one board member, no attorney was present to fight the case. Another expulsion hearing is set for this week's meeting, Larson said.
Dumfries representative Maureen Caddigan credited high school principals for the "fantastic job they're doing" discovering offenders. "We're confident that when we get the problem, they've done their job well."
A high school administrator who asked not to be identified said that high school students today are less willing to condone drug abuse among their peers than they once were. "It's a subtle change we're noticing, but high school principals aren't doing a thing different than they used to," he said. "I think more kids are doing the reporting." His school has not had an expulsion since September, the administrator added.
Josephine Baker, who as administration director works directly with officials of the county's six high schools, said the board's "get-tough policy" to expel a student for the first drug-related expense has been in existence throughout the six years she has been with the board. The county's 115,000 high school students are more likely to face expulsion if they are caught selling drugs than if they are caught possessing them, she said.
A principal has the option of treating alcohol abuse, sale and possession the same way as a drug offense. The recent involvement of students in Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) in all six high schools has made them more aware of the drug problem, Baker added. She agreed with the idea that students are becoming more cooperative in reporting drug dealers to teachers and principals.
"But we have not noticed a significant change in the amount of drug abuse in the community in the last three years, so we assume it has remained the same in the schools," Baker said. "It's just a little harder to detect now because kids are afraid of the consequences. They aren't as open about it as they used to be."
Rodger Fitzgerald, a counselor at Gar-Field High School, said that the drug problem rarely is brought to the attention of counselors. It is a closed subculture, and students do not willingly involve adults, even to ask for help, he said.
The School Board occasionally will readmit an expelled student if the student and parents can show "good faith" in indicating that there has been a change in the student's conduct. A student can request readmission to his or her former school at the end of the school year, Baker said.
In Loudoun County, with a student population of fewer than 13,000, there has been one student expulsion so far this school year, according to Deputy Superintendent Robert Jarvis. Loudoun students are expelled after a second drug-related offense; if readmitted, they are assigned to alternative schooling until they "prove they can behave." The Loudoun School Board expelled two students last year, he said. Student expulsion hearings are held on a night other than board meeting nights because "some take as long as three hours."
Neabsco board member Regis Lacey said the idea of moving expulsion hearings to another night has been "discussed in passing" but not seriously considered. "We like to handle them within the month the report is made to us," he said, "and they seem to be coming in bunches lately."