THE RECENT shooting of two students at Washington's Spingarn High school, along with the discovery of a loaded .38-caliber handgun in the book bag of a 13-year-old Jefferson Junior High school student, has finally got D.C. public school officials rethinking their longstanding and unhelpful "no expulsions" policy.
Even if the offense involves an incident with a handgun, D.C. school officials can now only suspend a student for a maximum of 10 days and then hope the juvenile court justice system will take over from there. The District is the only school district in this area that will not expel students. In response to the alarm raised by these incidents, D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie is asking the board of education to give her the right to expel students found with dangerous weapons or selling drugs. We think she should have it.
The "no expulsions" policy has admirable goals -- keeping youngsters off the streets and in school. But those students who repeatedly transgress need to know they will suffer something more severe than two weeks off from school. The students who would emulate such behavior need to know that they can be expelled. Orderly students also need to see that they cannot be victimized by illegal and dangerous behavior.
But simply having the right to expel students is not enough. A policy of automatic expulsions for weapons or drug abuse with no accompanying action -- this is the case in the Prince George's County public schools -- is not a good solution either. Despite the severity of the punishment, the number of expulsions actually increased in Prince George's, to nearly 200 last year.
In Montgomery County, expulsions are rare, but the system seems to be working well. A weapons violation gets at least a suspension, a police referral and a parental conference. Expulsion is the most severe action. Montgomery also has separate schools set aside for students with drug abuse or truancy problems. In the words of one official "We do all we can to help a student make it through the system."
Even though the courts have ruled in favor of a school district's right to expel students without providing some educational alternatives, there can be some intermediate ground, programs in place to try to salvage those students who can be turned around. Much thought needs to be given to developing such alternatives in the District. The schools here need discretion to expel students, after other moves have failed. But they also should have more in mind than simply turning those who have been expelled onto the streets.