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Suspend First; Ask Questions Later Is Sensitivity Replacing Sense At Schools?

Suspended: A 13-year-old honor student in Ohio for having Midol at school. A first-grader in North Carolina for a kiddie smooch.

Two coeds at a Roman Catholic high school in Florida refused to remove “pro-choice” stickers from their cars and were suspended, as was an Anderson, S.C., boy who wore a jacket to school with a Confederate battle flag on the back.

Buffeted by lawsuits and lesser criticisms, many school administrators have begun following, to the letter, school rules on weapons, clothing, drugs and potentially offensive behavior. Many want to ensure their students respect differences among classmates; others are trying hard - too hard, some say - for “political correctness.”

“They’re going and getting all strict now because there’s all this crime,” said Robert Evans, a senior at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C.

Many educators agree with the Washington 17-year-old. They say removing students from school is not the first choice for discipline, but officials have become quick to suspend in response to public anxiety over school safety.

“You may see that we are cracking down more to be sensitive to what the public wants,” said Carole Kennedy, principal at New Haven Elementary School in Columbia, Mo., and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Some educators also fear lawsuits filed by parents alleging their child’s right to free speech or expression has been violated or the school did too little to protect their child’s safety, said Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

Administrators read about the jury in San Francisco that awarded $500,000 to a student upon finding that school officials had ignored her complaints about a sixth-grade boy’s almost daily barrage of vulgarities, lewd insults and threats. The jury ordered the school district to pay 93 percent of the award; the boy’s family, $27,000; the girl’s former principal, $6,000.

In response to inquiries, the U.S. Department of Education issued policy guidelines in August on peer sexual harassment. Norma Cantu, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said harassment that “creates a hostile environment” is a federal offense, covered by a law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational programs and activities. Thus, she said, a school can be liable for failing to respond appropriately to a pupil’s complaint of sexual harassment by a classmate.

But Nadine Strossen, national president of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she thinks educators’ fears of being sued are overblown. Public education is “under siege,” she said, but treating Midol like marijuana makes the school look ridiculous.

The Midol incident occurred last week in Dayton, Ohio, where the 13-year-old girl was suspended for violating her school’s drug policy. She had borrowed a packet of the pills for menstrual pain from a classmate but never took any.

How many parents would protest because a school had failed to suspend a student for having an over-the-counter pill? Strossen asked.

Last month, Johnathan Prevette, a first-grader at a school in Lexington, N.C., was separated from his class and kept from attending an ice cream party for students with perfect attendance after he had kissed a girl on the cheek. School officials called it “unwelcome touching.”

“I think it’s silly - it’s going overboard,” said Sloane Stupica, a mother in Arlington, Va. “I think people are trying to be PC - trying to cover all bases.”

Her 5-year-old daughter, Malory, agreed. Asked if young children should be suspended for kissing, Malory shyly shook her head no. But, asked if she wants a boy to kiss her at school, she said emphatically: “No!” Few argue against suspending students for packing handguns to school.

But was it right to suspend a kindergartner in Providence, R.I., last year for bringing a table knife? The boy said he had taken it to school to cut cookies. School officials say it wasn’t in his lunch bucket but fell on the floor in class.

Last year, a high school student was suspended in Sterling, Va., for using mouthwash at school. The principal said the youth had admitted drinking it and had bragged that it contains alcohol.

“I think we are reacting more quickly because we don’t want the kids to come back with a sharp knife or something else in the mouthwash bottle,” said Kennedy, the elementary school principals association president.

Safety also was the reason given by school officials last year in Mendon, Mich., for suspending a high-school boy for wearing a Star of David. The student said it made him feel different. But school officials told him it resembled a gang symbol, and because he wasn’t Jewish, he couldn’t wear it.


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