Teen's mom: School showing zero fairness
By MAUREEN BYRNE
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001
SEMINOLE -- Crystal Little's prom dress hangs in her closet.
The light-green fabric is dotted with rhinestones. "And it has a criss-cross back," Crystal said.
But unless school administrators reverse a decision made last month, Crystal won't be allowed to attend her high school prom.
Grad Night, an end-of-the-year bash for high schoolers at Walt Disney World, would be off-limits.
And accepting her diploma at Osceola High School's graduation ceremony would be out of the question.
"I feel really bad," Crystal said. "All through high school, I've looked forward to these events."
March 23, school officials gave Crystal a 10-day suspension and recommended that she be reassigned to an alternative school. In fact, Crystal, 17, was told she was not allowed to be on any the property of any Pinellas County public school.
Her crime: an alleged sip of peach schnapps.
March 21, Crystal and four of her softball teammates went to a player's house to change into their uniforms. What happened after that is unclear.
Crystal says one of the students drank some peach schnapps. She denies having any, but when the girls returned to school for team pictures, she told her coach she had a sip.
She says she lied to him because the girls decided they would all say they had a drink of the schnapps if their coach started asking questions. Crystal says the teammates figured if they all admitted they had a drink, it would take some pressure off the girl who had indulged.
Problem is, Crystal says, none of the other girls followed through with the plan. School officials called Crystal's mother, Tammie Lockwood of Largo, and told her she needed to come to the school.
Crystal says she then told her mother the truth. She told her she had lied to her coach and she had not touched any alcohol.
"Crystal has never ever had a disciplinary problem at that school," said Lockwood.
The harsh punishment is the result of the school district's zero-tolerance policy, which states that students with weapons or controlled substances, including alcohol, will be expelled.
The policy, which is part of the school district's Student Code of Conduct, takes away the discretion that principals and other school disciplinarians once had in deciding punishment for individual offenses.
Mrs. Lockwood has appealed the decision.
"The investigation is still under review," said Cathy Athanson, the district's Area III superintendent. "After spring break there should be a conclusion to it."
In 1994, in response to public fears ofschool violence, Congress passed the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act. It required any school receiving federal funds to automatically expel any student who takes a gun to school.
But the list of offenses quickly grew to items including drugs and alcohol, toy guns, knives of any kind, scissors and over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin. Some schools added theft, verbal abuse and sexual harassment.
In 1997, the Florida Department of Education implemented a zero-tolerance policy for the state's 67 school districts. It does not allow administrators to consider the circumstances surrounding an incident, a student's previous disciplinary record or his or her contribution to the school.
"It's a huge, huge problem," said Daniel Losen of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, co-author of a report on zero-tolerance school policies.
"Many of these policies are just bad because they fail to consider kids as individuals," Losen said. "Effective schools care about children. They are firm and consistent with discipline, but the consequences need to make sense."
Athanson says there are no gray areas when it comes to zero tolerance. The district prohibits the use of alcoholic beverages or being under the influence of alcohol on school property.
"When there is a violation of the code of student conduct, the schools have a very defined procedure they follow," she said.
Crystal and Mrs. Lockwood say the coach and other school officials told them there was no reason to worry. But fearing her daughter could still be in jeopardy, she immediately took her to a Bayfront Convenient Care Clinic on Seminole Boulevard.
Mrs. Lockwood paid $90 for a blood-alcohol test to be done on her daughter. The result: negative.
The following day, Crystal says she was called to assistant principal Michael Corrigan's office. She says he told her to write down on a piece of paper exactly what she told her softball coach the previous day. She says he also told her to sign her name on the paper.
Crystal wrote down what happened, including the part about having a sip of schnapps.
The next day, March 23, she again was called to the office. This time she was told she was being suspended for 10 days and was being recommended to finish her senior year at an alternative school.
Crystal, a well-behaved B student, captain of her school's softball team and an avid churchgoer, was being transferred to a school where dropout prevention was a priority.
Mrs. Lockwood thinks her daughter was not given due process. According to the Student Code of Conduct, "the student shall be informed orally and in writing of the charges and an explanation of the evidence against him. The student shall be allowed to give a personal version of the incident."
That didn't happen, says Mrs. Lockwood.
Corrigan, the assistant principal, said he could not comment on the case. "It is unfortunate," he said of Crystal's situation. "But with the zero-tolerance policy, we can't allow personal opinions to enter in the situation."
"We're bound to that," he said of the policy.
At a meeting in February in San Diego, the American Bar Association approved a resolution opposing zero-tolerance polices in schools. It doesn't have any real power, but the group hopes it influences the federal government and state legislatures to re-evaluate a policy that may be doing more harm than good.
"There is a certain hysteria that has taken over," Losen said. "Part of that is a result of Columbine and other horrific school shootings."
Strict measures must be enforced to prevent such terrible incidents, but school officials should not overreact to minor situations, said Michael Baboni, a St. Petersburg attorney hired by Mrs. Lockwood.
In Crystal's case, "it appears in light of the evidence the penalty was too severe," he said.
Mrs. Lockwood said she hired Baboni to help her understand the terms of the Student Code of Conduct and ensure that her daughter got due process.
"She is concerned that her daughter was not given due process under the school board's own rules," he said. "It says the student shall be informed orally and in writing (of the charges). That never happened in this case."
Although Crystal denies having even one sip of schnapps, Baboni said the school's report says that at least one of the other teammates said she did.
The negative result on Crystal's blood-alcohol test could mean one of two things, said Dr. Keith Waldrep, medical director for the Bayfront Convenient Care Clinics.
A negative reading either means the individual consumed no alcohol or the alcohol already is out of the person's system. "A negative test is not going to 100 percent eliminate that no alcohol was consumed," Waldrep said.
Crystal was at her teammate's home around 3 p.m. Her test was done around 5 p.m.
"Everybody understands the reason for taking a tough stand, but I think it has to be weighed against practicality and real fairness," Baboni said. "I think the schools get overzealous and good kids who really are not troublemakers get hurt in the process.
"I think she's a victim of the zero-tolerance policy. Their position is zero tolerance is zero tolerance and your whole school record and four years of hard work go out the window."
Crystal, who plans to be a dental assistant, just hopes she'll get her birthday wish. She turns 18 on June 7 -- graduation day.
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