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Students need protection from schools' hysteria

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000

Apparently, Sabrina isn't the only teenage witch. According to Charlie Bushyhead, assistant principal at Union Intermediate High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ninth-grader Brandi Blackbear put a hex on one of the school's teachers sending him to the hospital for an unknown illness (which later turned out to be an appendicitis attack).

Far be it from Bushyhead to allow such shenanigans at his institution of enlightenment and learning. To teach this conjurer a lesson, he summarily suspended Brandi for 15 days.

Brandi denies being a witch or casting any spells. (Duh.) Her attorney, Aundrea Smith, says the rumor about her got started when she thumbed through a book on the Wicca religion in the school library and doodled a pentagram on her hand. Smith says Brandi was singled out because she was already an outcast. "She wore her hair dyed black, and she's really shy," Smith said. This fall, Brandi, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, filed suit against the school district for violating her rights.

Student rights is a dirty phrase these days. Many Americans believe the public schools took a nose-dive because student discipline got expelled when student rights took a seat.

Conservative commentators reinforce the perception that any attempt to enforce order in the classroom will subject teachers to legal action by disrespectful, snot-nose kids and their indignant parents.

The truth is, students have far fewer constitutional rights in school than they have on the sidewalk outside. Current U.S. Supreme Court precedent says teachers and school officials may constitutionally inflict corporal punishment and impose detentions and short suspensions on students at will. Courts are generally receptive to student claims only where there have been gross violations of free expression, privacy or due process. For example, a hearing is required for suspensions longer than 10 days and any expulsions. Since unjust punishments can permanently damage a student's education and academic record, students should have at least some recourse from arbitrary treatment.

The need for counterbalance is especially important today since school principals are still in freak-out mode. With the vision of the murderous rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., still relatively fresh, students are being punished not because they have done anything wrong but because they might. Across the country, school administrators are irresponsibly punishing students for ostensibly fitting a Columbine-killer profile.

In its September report "The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective," the FBI warned school officials that students leak clues about their violent intentions through conversation, artwork and creative writing. While the report was careful to say there is no way to predict who will be the next Dylan Klebold, the report offered a list of 28 traits which may indicate whether a student who writes about violence will carry it out. The list is so broad and vague -- alienation from peers, an attitude of superiority, poor coping skills -- it fits nearly every teenager.

Just ask Matthew Parent, a 17-year-old honors student in 11th grade at Johnson High School in Rhode Island. In October, without a hearing or notice, he was suspended indefinitely based on a journal kept for extra credit in an English class. Matthew, an "A" student with no criminal record or history of violence, was deemed "suicidal" and "homicidal" by a psychologist and a school social worker who read Matthew's stream-of-consciousness writing assignment. The essay did not make any direct threats but was a gestalt of angst, guilt, bravado and self-pity -- the stuff of a teen's brain. Yet, the school's principal told Matthew's mother that he would not be allowed back in school without a psychological evaluation. It took a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Rhode Island to get Matthew a hearing at which school officials capitulated and allowed him to return to class.

His story is similar to that of honor student Sarah Boman, who was expelled in January from a high school in Wichita, Kansas for artwork deemed "threatening." Her work was a poem written in a spiral pattern that explored the rantings of a madman deeply upset that someone killed his dog. After Sarah displayed the piece, the way she posted all her previous artwork, the principal expelled her. The school board later said she could return if she submitted to a mental health examination. Again, a lawsuit got her back in school.

Without "student rights," there would be no basis for challenging any action of school officials, and young people like Brandi, Matthew and Sarah would be at the mercy of this momentary hysteria. While the judgment of principals should be given deference in most cases, when they start seeing normal teenage imaginings as murder incorporated and off-beat girls as a coven, students have reason to ask the courts for help.

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